A spell in the CaRSI

Century House, home of MI6 in the 1970s. Photo: Peter Jordan/Wikimedia Commons

The late Crispin Aubrey’s research material has now been donated to the Statewatch archive, and is in the process of being digitised. It seems a good time, therefore, to provide a brief account about my own small effort to shine a light into the murkier corners of 1970s official secrecy. 

One Sunday lunchtime in the early summer of 1976 I went to a party in Hampstead, where I met a young Scottish woman called Aggie MacKenzie. We chatted for a while and then a few hours later I gave her and a friend a lift into town in my old Austin A40, dropping them off at a bus stop before heading home to my rented flat in not at all trendy Stoke Newington.

Somehow, I had acquired her phone number and a few days later I plucked up enough courage to ring her. We began our relationship shortly after that: she shared a house in Stockwell with several other young women who worked with her in, what she told me then, was the Foreign Office. I lived on my own, so we took to spending most nights together in my flat.

Her housemates were all the kind of well-bred Home Counties types that you would have expected to be secretaries in the Foreign Office, but Ag was different. The year 1976 is famously remembered now for its long hot summer, but it was also the year in which the ‘George Davis is Innocent OK’ protest came to a triumphant end. Davis was a Londoner with a criminal past, but had been arrested and convicted for a crime he did not commit, after the police concocted a case against him. He was finally released from prison under the royal prerogative. Living in east London I knew about this, but Ag knew more. Not long after arriving in London the previous autumn, she had been to the play about him which was then running at the Half Moon theatre and had even been on a subsequent demonstration demanding his release. When her bosses found out about this, she was warned never to go on a demonstration again, she told me.

This was also the time when I was instrumental in getting the community newspaper Hackney People’s Press back into publication. I had become involved in HPP the previous year, when the main person in the publishing collective had been the Time Out journalist Crispin Aubrey. Crispin had dropped out of this in the autumn and it went into abeyance for a while. However, I got together with two or three other people and we had produced a modest eight page edition in April, with the aim of building up another group. A few more then came forward and Ag also began helping on the production weekends, her typing skills leading to an immediate improvement in the quality of the artwork.

At that point I still thought that her job was in the ‘Permanent Under Secretary’s Department’ of the Foreign Office. It was not based in Whitehall, she said, but in an anonymous looking building next to Lambeth North tube station. However, a few months later she told me that this was a fiction: she was in fact working for MI6, or ‘the Service’ as it was known, and this office block was its head office, Century House. She said that she hadn’t known who her real employer was until the day she started, having been recruited straight from college in Aberdeen to work for the Foreign Office as a bilingual secretary. (She has written about this herself on a number of occasions over the last few years.) I should say at this point that I never asked her for any details of her work. There were a few times over the next couple of years when she mentioned things in passing, but we were both conscious of the fact that she had signed the Official Secrets Act, and all that entailed.

My natural caution was exacerbated in November 1976 when the news broke that two American journalists, Philip Agee and Mark Hosenball, had been told that they were to be deported from the UK on the grounds of being threats to national security. Agee was an ex-CIA employee who had written a book about his time in the agency. Hosenball was a Time Out reporter who had written extensively about security matters in the magazine. My interest in this story was given added spice by the knowledge that Crispin was a colleague of Hosenball’s in the Time Out newsroom.

Two months later, the lease on Ag’s Stockwell house ran out and we decided that she would move in with me. We had only been together in the flat for a few weeks when the news came that Crispin had himself been arrested, along with another journalist Duncan Campbell, after the pair had conducted an interview with a former soldier, John Berry, who had contacted the Agee/Hosenball Defence Campaign. The three were eventually charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act.

An ABC Defence Campaign was set up immediately and I started going to its meetings. The people attending were a mixture of family members, friends and colleagues, lawyers and the usual oddballs who turn up when events like these are advertised publicly. Although the charges the three men faced were serious, there was an element of farce both in the way in which they had been arrested and the subsequent course taken by the prosecuting authorities, and a lot of the campaign’s activities therefore concentrated on ridicule and fun. I tried to make myself useful by doing artwork for posters and badges as well as turning up for various leafletting and picketting events. It was at one of these, a lunchtime protest outside the MI5 head office at Curzon Street House, that I suddenly became aware that a small window had opened behind my head and a camera lens was poking out. As soon as I turned to look at it, the lens was hastily withdrawn and the window closed.

A few months later, in May 1977, Ag was sent by the Service on a residential course. Apparently this was standard procedure for secretarial staff, to prepare them for possible postings abroad. She didn’t tell me exactly what it would entail but I had read enough John le Carré novels to guess that it involved tradecraft and the like. The venue was somewhere referred to only as ‘the Fort’, and it was somewhere near Portsmouth. (In a sign of how things have changed since then, I now know that the site is in Gosport and is called Fort Monckton. The centre is even mentioned on the Fort’s Wikipedia page.) In preparation for the course, she had been told that she had to give her current address and phone number, so she listed ours. At this point in our relationship she hadn’t yet told her parents that she was living with a boyfriend, knowing that they wouldn’t approve. They thought that she had moved in with a female work colleague who, conveniently for her, wasn’t on the phone. However her sister, who lived in London, did know the truth.

So I was surprised when, late one evening, the phone rang and a man with a middle class English accent asked to speak to ‘Aggie’. No, you can’t, I said, she’s away on a work course. I asked who was calling. He told me that he was a cousin, and that he was unexpectedly down in London and thought he would get in touch. I said that if he was a cousin, he presumably knew Ag’s sister’s number and that he should get in touch with her in the meantime. At this point, the man sounded confused and hung up. It then dawned on me that he was in fact some sort of spook checking up on the number, and seeing who answered. Also, I knew that no one in her family called her ‘Aggie’: to them she was always Agnes or Ag. When she came home at the end of the course, I told her and she immediately agreed that it must have been someone checking.

I decided then that I should be even more careful about Ag’s real employer and not do anything to draw attention to it. However, over the year or so we had now known each other I had gleaned various bits of low level information from her which I thought it would be useful to share with the wider world. It wasn’t difficult to work out, for instance, exactly which was the building in North Gower Street which housed the headquarters of the MI5/MI6 joint station. It had no signage outside, a bomb-proof protruding ledge over the entrance doors, discreet security men sitting behind the reception desk and floor to ceiling net curtains in all the windows. I learnt to recognise similar characteristics in London’s other ‘top secret’ buildings.

By coincidence, a building in Borough High Street housing the MI6 Training Department was almost next door to my own place of work, the Folio Society’s offices in Great Suffolk Street. I would stroll casually past in my lunch break, noting how various plain vans could occasionally be seen reversing into its loading bay.

I couldn’t just give this information directly to Crispin, or anyone else for that matter. If I did I would have to reveal Ag’s real employer and even though I could trust him not to pass on the information, it would probably leak out. So I decided that the best thing to do was send it out anonymously, although I would have to wait for an opportunity to do so.

Ag went back home to Rothiemurchus, near Aviemore, for the Christmas and New Year holidays leaving me in London, and I realised that I then had time to act. I decided to create a bulletin from a new organisation which I called CaRSI, the Campaign for the Revelation of Secret Information. Producing the bulletin involved me adapting some of the tradecraft I had gleaned from all those spy novels. I had plenty of Letraset at home which I could have used to create the CaRSI letterhead but I realised that this would be easily traceable so I stayed late at work one day and photocopied the Bodoni Bold page – a type sheet I had never owned – from the Letraset catalogue on the office copier. I remember being quite pleased with the logo I designed using this photocopy, with its use of a lower case a in an otherwise all-cap setting, but I realised that I wouldn’t be able to claim ownership of it for a while. I pasted the logo up into a master page and then used the copier again to make some letterheads. The copier had a replaceable ‘blanket’ on which the original image was cast before transferring it to the copy, so I changed the blanket and threw the old one away after finishing the work. As I knew it would be some time before I posted out the letters, I reckoned the bin’s contents would be well on the way to landfill by then.

I had spotted an office equipment shop in the Strand which had a sign in the window saying typewriters for hire, so I called in there and rented a portable typewriter for a week, paying cash and leaving a deposit. To be on the safe side, I gave the shop a false name and an address in west London. Everyone was much more trusting in those days. I typed up my information onto a single page of my letterheads, rather grandiosely calling it Bulletin No.1, and put it into a plain envelope. There was a self-service photocopier at Baker Street Tube station so I went there to make copies, taking care to wear gloves when handling them.

I bought a sealed packet of envelopes and some stamps, and again wearing gloves while handling them, typed the names and addresses of various newsrooms onto a number of envelopes. I forget how many media outlets were on my list but it was probably about a dozen in all. These included Time Out, Peace News, The Leveller and various left papers. Then I put the bulletins into the envelopes, sealing them and sticking on first class stamps with a damp spongecloth, so not to leave saliva traces. I placed all the envelopes into another larger one before removing my gloves. Then I burnt all the leftover bulletins and the original master copy in the kitchen sink and flushed the ashes away. I put the typewriter away in its case, having first given it a thorough wipedown to remove any fingerprints from the keys and the carriage. I wiped down the outside of the typewriter case, took it back to the hire company and then dumped the rest of the envelopes in a public litter bin.

I decided not to post the envelopes out while Ag was away: someone might spot this, I thought, and decide that this wasn’t a coincidence. So I sealed the larger envelope up and put it at the back of a desk drawer, reckoning that she wouldn’t find it there. One day, a few weeks later I decided that the time was right to post the bulletins off, and took the envelope with me to work. I went up to the West End on my way home and posted the individual envelopes, if my memory serves me correct, in a busy letterbox in Tottenham Court Road. Again, I wore gloves and dumped the outer envelope in a public bin.

Nothing happened for a while. I think Crispin might suspected something because he made a cryptic remark to me about getting some anonymous information, but I feigned surprise. A good summary of the bulletin appeared in Peace News, and some other publications referred to it but, for obvious reasons, I didn’t want to go out of my way to save the press clippings. Crispin also referred to the bulletin in his 1981 book, Who’s Watching You, describing it as being ‘clearly based on the inside knowledge of a “whistleblower”.’

It’s now 42 years since my foray into the espionage world. Ag left her ‘Foreign Office’ job in 1978 and went to work in the press office of the National Union of Students. Shortly afterwards, I also started a new job, as the publications officer for what was then called the National Council for Civil Liberties (now just Liberty). Its dingy office in King’s Cross Road had also served as the headquarters of the Agee-Hosenball Defence Committee, and a tap on its phone had probably led to the arrest of the ABC defendants. The ABC case itself finished in November 1978 in pretty farcical circumstances with the three defendants being found guilty on three Official Secrets Act Section 2 charges, which was almost a technicality. Crispin and Duncan got conditional discharges, and John Berry a suspended sentence.

Crispin Aubrey left a voluminous archive at the time of his sudden death in 2012. As his wife Sue said ‘Crispin never threw anything away.’ It has now been handed over to the Statewatch collection and is in the process of being catalogued. Somewhere in the two and half filing cabinets there may well be a copy of CaRSI’s one and only bulletin. I’m looking forward to seeing it again.

The issue of Peace News which reported the CaRSI bulletin. (No 2064, 24 February 1978).

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Aitken and the ABC case

[L-R] Tony Bunyan, Duncan Campbell and Sarah Kavanagh speaking at the Arnolfini in Bristol, an event organised to mark the 40th anniversary of the ABC Campaign

The event in Bristol a couple of weeks ago to mark the 40th anniversary of the Aubrey-Berry-Campbell official secrets case was a good chance to catch up with many people I hadn’t seen for a good number of years. I was also quite surprised by the large number of bits of ephemera which I designed for the campaign. Stickers, posters, badges, the ‘souvenir programme’ which we produced for the 1978 Old Bailey trial and a few more I had totally forgotten about. The product of many nights Letrasetting headlines and pasting up artwork, and there they all were, projected onto the backdrop behind the speakers in a never-ending slideshow.

One was for this Conway Hall meeting, held in April 1977, an event I remember well.

Some people might be surprised to see Jonathan Aitken’s name as a speaker at this meeting, given that he is most famous now for being convicted of perjury following the collapse of the libel case he brought against the Guardian in 1995. However, he had himself been on trial in 1971 for breaching the Official Secrets Act, along with the editor of the Sunday Telegraph, the newspaper itself and a retired army colonel who had been an observer in the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s. All the defendants were eventually acquitted on all charges. (The best summary of the case that I could find online is actually from the New York Times.) The judge told the court that the Telegraph’s report did not contain ‘a word affecting our national security.’ and that the result should make the Government consider whether the broad terms of the act had ‘reached retirement age and should be pensioned off.’ The case against Aitken was brought by a Labour government and Attorney-General, and it was the same combination who brought the 1977 prosecution against Aubrey, Berry and Campbell. That might have been the party political reason for Aitken speaking in support of a campaign which had previously only been backed by left-wing Labour MPs (such as Neil Kinnock, Jo Richardson and Robert Kilroy-Silk(!)).

After the case, Aitken wrote a book, Officially Secret, published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson in 1971. I have a copy of this, which I see from the stamps inside that I bought from a LB Hackney sale of withdrawn library stock in 1986 for 25p. The cover was designed by Craig Dodd, who also worked on covers for other publishers in this period. (See these posts on Existential Ennui: The Dame, The Right Stuff and The Shooting Party.)

There is another link between the Aitken and ABC cases. One of the defence counsel in both was Lord Hutchinson QC, who died yesterday at the grand age of 102. In his obituary in today’s Guardian, Geoffrey Robertson QC (who was a junior counsel in the ABC case) recalls how Hutchinson found out about the jury-vetting in the latter case, in a story which he also told at the Bristol event:

On the opening day of the ‘ABC’ trial in 1978, Jeremy discovered by chatting to an incautious Old Bailey clerk that the prosecution had made a clandestine application to a subservient judge to ‘vet’ the jury panel. This practice had been secretly used in ‘political’ cases and Jeremy’s advocacy blew it up into a national scandal. A pupil barrister (now Mr Justice Nicol) was dispatched post-haste to the LSE library to borrow a copy of Bentham’s Elements of the Art of Jury-Packing, which Jeremy used as the basis for a blistering attack on the weak Labour law officers who had approved this obnoxious form of secret policing.

By the time the ABC case came up for trial, I was working for the National Council for Civil Liberties as its publications officer. The very first item I produced in this new job was a pamphlet called Justice Deserted, written by one of NCCL’s legal officers, Harriet Harman, and LSE professor John Griffith. The foreword was by EP Thompson, no less, and I recall having to ring the great man himself to give him instructions as to where to post his text. Heady days indeed.

The ABC case: forty years on

L-R: Duncan Campbell, Crispin Aubrey and John Berry, pictured after their arrest in 1977. Pic: Crispin Aubrey Legacy Fund

It’s hard to believe that it’s more than 40 years since two journalists, Crispin Aubrey and Duncan Campbell, were arrested outside the North London flat of ex-soldier John Berry. All three were then charged with various offences under the Official Secrets Act.

I became a fairly active member of their defence committee, which was also supported by the National Union of Journalists and civil liberties groups. A first trial at the Old Bailey in September 1978 collapsed after one of the members of the jury was identified as a former officer in the Special Air Service. A second trial opened on 3 October 1978. The prosecution admitted that much of the information was in the public domain, and charges under section 1 of the Official Secrets Act were dropped on 24 October. All three were finally found guilty on 17 November 1978 of the Section 2 offences, but received non-custodial sentences.

Crispin Aubrey died suddenly of a heart attack in 2012. His family set up a fund in his memory to continue his work and carry on the campaigns with which he was involved. The fund is organising a public discussion in Bristol on Friday 3 November to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the case, and all are invited. Among the speakers will be John Berry and Duncan Campbell. The invitation explains:

Every post-war generation has had its own whistleblower who has tried to expose the extent to which governments monitor public communications. For the 1970s it was the ABC trial. This shone a light on the darker corners of state surveillance and sparked a ferocious attempt by the government to criminalise journalists. At this special event, hear from those involved and the contemporary relevance in our post-Snowden world. This unique panel discussion will look at the events from those involved and consider how much has really changed and the threats to journalists and whistleblowers today.

The event is free, but a £5 donation to the Fund is requested in order to continue its work. Get tickets in advance here.

Duncan Campbell’s own site has many items of interest to do with the case and trial.