Commentary Magazine


Topic: British intelligence

The End of the Northern Ireland Model for Negotiating with Terrorists?

For the past few days I’ve been in London, where I was presenting a paper at the Counter Terror Expo. I had the privilege to sit-in on other talks far more interesting than mine revolving around British preparations for the Summer Olympics; strategies to counteract terrorist charities; and very practical tactical approaches to the counter terror fight.

A few items jumped out at me during the course of the two-day conference which I simply had not known or previously thought about at length. For example, while American counter terror officials will confront terrorist charities and shut them down, the British believe (naively, in my view) that they can excise the terror influence yet preserve the charity. Likewise, while the U.S. Treasury Department is expert at tracking U.S. dollar transactions in order to deny terrorists funding, I had never fully considered the problem of laundering such transactions via the Mexican Peso, an increasing problem especially given the interplay between terrorists and drug gangs and the prevalence of informal Peso transactions in the American southwest.

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For the past few days I’ve been in London, where I was presenting a paper at the Counter Terror Expo. I had the privilege to sit-in on other talks far more interesting than mine revolving around British preparations for the Summer Olympics; strategies to counteract terrorist charities; and very practical tactical approaches to the counter terror fight.

A few items jumped out at me during the course of the two-day conference which I simply had not known or previously thought about at length. For example, while American counter terror officials will confront terrorist charities and shut them down, the British believe (naively, in my view) that they can excise the terror influence yet preserve the charity. Likewise, while the U.S. Treasury Department is expert at tracking U.S. dollar transactions in order to deny terrorists funding, I had never fully considered the problem of laundering such transactions via the Mexican Peso, an increasing problem especially given the interplay between terrorists and drug gangs and the prevalence of informal Peso transactions in the American southwest.

Perhaps the most important fact I learned was that British security officials believe that their pact with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) may be unraveling.  British intelligence and counter terror officials are now tracking and interrupting more IRA terror planning that at any time since before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The problem is not simply IRA dissidents, as some reports suggest, but mainstream IRA upset that their goals are not being fully met through the political process.  The reason why the collapse of the IRA model is so important is because it has increasingly been the key justification for negotiation with terrorists. When former Sen. George Mitchell took over as President Obama’s Middle East envoy, he repeatedly justified Obama administration actions with the IRA analogy.  “In a sense, in Northern Ireland, we had about 700 days of failure and one day of success,” Mitchell remarked in 2010. The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl noted that there was seldom a press conference in which Mitchell did not make reference to the Northern Ireland peace process as a model and inspiration. German diplomats have also cited the IRA model to justify their engagement with Hezbollah, and British and American diplomats have cited the Northern Ireland process to justify negotiation with the Taliban.

The analogy has always been faulty. The IRA never had a Pakistan or Iran to support it, nor was it committed to wiping Great Britain from the map. The IRA may have been noxious, but its basic platform did not seek to deny women schooling. Still, if the British could bite their lower lip, talk to terrorist enemies, and strike a deal, why couldn’t other Europeans or Americans?

With the IRA’s resurgence, hopefully the arguments for engaging and appeasing terrorists can be put to rest. The Northern Ireland process rewarded IRA violence and may have brought some quiet. But just as terrorist leaders like Muammar Qaddafi never change their stripes no matter how much money they donate to British universities or how they enrich Western diplomats, terrorist groups never fully embrace rule-of-law and the democratic process. Rather, they abide by the philosophy so elegantly stated by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: ‘Democracy is like a streetcar. You ride it as far as you need, and then you get off.’ It’s time Western policymakers deny them entry in the first place, rather than fall all over themselves to provide free tickets.

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Why Hitler’s Palestinian Ally Still Matters

WikiLeaks isn’t the only source of interesting government documents. On Friday, the National Archives published a report about American efforts to recruit former Nazis to help intelligence efforts during the Cold War. This is familiar territory for those familiar with the period. While war has always made for strange bedfellows (such as the necessity of the wartime alliance with Stalin against Hitler), the willingness of the United States government to employ all sorts of Nazi criminals to combat the Soviets is a sorry chapter in our history.

Nevertheless, included in this report was some fascinating material about one particular Nazi war criminal whose historical legacy lives on today: Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. The willingness of Husseini, the putative leader of Palestinian Arab nationalism in the 1930s and 1940s, to collaborate with the Nazis has long been established and has been the subject of more scholarly scrutiny in recent years. However, this report does help fill in some of the details about the extent of the mufti’s relationship with Berlin.

Among the interesting tidbits: the mufti who did Nazi propaganda broadcasts to the Islamic world and helped recruit a Bosnian Muslim brigade for the SS was on Hitler’s payroll and actually paid twice the salary received by German field marshals. More chilling was Hitler’s promise that he would install Husseini as the head of a Palestinian state after the planned German conquest of the Middle East and the extermination of the hundreds of thousands of Jews then in the British Mandate for Palestine. The report also details the way French and British intelligence allowed the mufti to flee his European hideouts and return to the Middle East in order to carry on his war against the Jews.

While this may seem like ancient history to observers of the contemporary Middle East, the mufti’s relevance to the political culture of the Palestinians should not be underestimated. His rejection of any accommodation with the Jews and his embrace of the crudest anti-Semitic slurs, which deliberately echo Nazi themes, is still felt today, what with even the supposedly “moderate” Palestinian Authority engaging in similar anti-Jewish incitement and hatred. So long as Hitler’s faithful Muslim ally remains a role model for Palestinians, peace is a long way off.

WikiLeaks isn’t the only source of interesting government documents. On Friday, the National Archives published a report about American efforts to recruit former Nazis to help intelligence efforts during the Cold War. This is familiar territory for those familiar with the period. While war has always made for strange bedfellows (such as the necessity of the wartime alliance with Stalin against Hitler), the willingness of the United States government to employ all sorts of Nazi criminals to combat the Soviets is a sorry chapter in our history.

Nevertheless, included in this report was some fascinating material about one particular Nazi war criminal whose historical legacy lives on today: Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. The willingness of Husseini, the putative leader of Palestinian Arab nationalism in the 1930s and 1940s, to collaborate with the Nazis has long been established and has been the subject of more scholarly scrutiny in recent years. However, this report does help fill in some of the details about the extent of the mufti’s relationship with Berlin.

Among the interesting tidbits: the mufti who did Nazi propaganda broadcasts to the Islamic world and helped recruit a Bosnian Muslim brigade for the SS was on Hitler’s payroll and actually paid twice the salary received by German field marshals. More chilling was Hitler’s promise that he would install Husseini as the head of a Palestinian state after the planned German conquest of the Middle East and the extermination of the hundreds of thousands of Jews then in the British Mandate for Palestine. The report also details the way French and British intelligence allowed the mufti to flee his European hideouts and return to the Middle East in order to carry on his war against the Jews.

While this may seem like ancient history to observers of the contemporary Middle East, the mufti’s relevance to the political culture of the Palestinians should not be underestimated. His rejection of any accommodation with the Jews and his embrace of the crudest anti-Semitic slurs, which deliberately echo Nazi themes, is still felt today, what with even the supposedly “moderate” Palestinian Authority engaging in similar anti-Jewish incitement and hatred. So long as Hitler’s faithful Muslim ally remains a role model for Palestinians, peace is a long way off.

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The Story Is Only as Good as the Witness

It would have been nice had Peggy Noonan tried harder to answer her query (“Is it true?”) about Scott McClellan’s book. She acknowledges that the storyteller has some significant credibility problems, but shushes those who criticize him. She then seems to conclude the book is nevertheless “true.” (There’s quite a bit of “if he thought it or felt it, it has truth” which suggests that, unfortunately, post-modernism has become endemic.)

Maybe it’s the lawyer in me, but I think that when the credibility of the witness is damaged because of bias, motive to lie, or lack of first-hand facts (or all of these), there is reason to believe the story isn’t true. There are a few core problems with McClellan’s telling, which others more knowledgeable than I about the inner workings of the Bush White House have pointed to, contemporaneous contradictory comments and lack of access being two of the major ones. Hint #1: a telltale sign of a hyped story about supposed misdeeds is use of provocative language (“propaganda”) in lieu of details about who, what, where, and when untruths allegedly were concocted. Hint#2: when the book changes fundamentally between the “proposal and publication” under the tutelage of a left-wing book publisher you can bet, like that infamous British intelligence report, it got “sexed up” a bit.

So rather than hush the skeptics, maybe we should consider their point: the storyteller is an unreliable witness. (And if forced to swallow truth serum, the reporters–the ones who covered the White House–who are now fawning over McClellan would tell us they doubt he was keyed into the major players and key conversations which would substantiate his claims.)

As to the generic venom and clichéd observations (Dick Cheney was powerful! Who’d have thought?):those didn’t take a percipient witness. They could have been drafted by George Soros. (Maybe they were.)

It would have been nice had Peggy Noonan tried harder to answer her query (“Is it true?”) about Scott McClellan’s book. She acknowledges that the storyteller has some significant credibility problems, but shushes those who criticize him. She then seems to conclude the book is nevertheless “true.” (There’s quite a bit of “if he thought it or felt it, it has truth” which suggests that, unfortunately, post-modernism has become endemic.)

Maybe it’s the lawyer in me, but I think that when the credibility of the witness is damaged because of bias, motive to lie, or lack of first-hand facts (or all of these), there is reason to believe the story isn’t true. There are a few core problems with McClellan’s telling, which others more knowledgeable than I about the inner workings of the Bush White House have pointed to, contemporaneous contradictory comments and lack of access being two of the major ones. Hint #1: a telltale sign of a hyped story about supposed misdeeds is use of provocative language (“propaganda”) in lieu of details about who, what, where, and when untruths allegedly were concocted. Hint#2: when the book changes fundamentally between the “proposal and publication” under the tutelage of a left-wing book publisher you can bet, like that infamous British intelligence report, it got “sexed up” a bit.

So rather than hush the skeptics, maybe we should consider their point: the storyteller is an unreliable witness. (And if forced to swallow truth serum, the reporters–the ones who covered the White House–who are now fawning over McClellan would tell us they doubt he was keyed into the major players and key conversations which would substantiate his claims.)

As to the generic venom and clichéd observations (Dick Cheney was powerful! Who’d have thought?):those didn’t take a percipient witness. They could have been drafted by George Soros. (Maybe they were.)

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All the Falsehoods Fit to Print

What are we to make of President Bush’s final State of the Union Address? The New York Times has an answer. When it comes to Iraq, says the paper,

Mr. Bush’s annual addresses will be remembered most for his false claims — the fictitious “axis of evil,” nonexistent aluminum tubes and African uranium, dangerous weapons that did not exist. No President can want that as his legacy.

There’s a lot to unpack here. To begin with, is the “axis of evil” really “fictitious”? What is the Times driving at here? Perhaps it is quarreling with the use of the word “evil” to characterize North Korea, Iran, and Iraq under Saddam Hussein. But if the editors of the Times do not regard these particular dictatorships as evil, than what is?

Alternatively, perhaps the paper is quarreling with the word “axis.” But Connecting the Dots seems to recall that it was only this past September when North Korea was observed supplying some sort of nuclear technology to Syria, a close ally of Iran. Some reports suggest that Israel seized the material in its raid on a Syrian facility that month. Doesn’t such proliferation activity — along with North Korea’s collaboration with Iran in the field of offensive missiles — make for an “axis”? If not, how does the Times define “axis”?

One might also ask in response to the Times editorial: was Iraq under Saddam Hussein part of an axis of evil? True, only scant and highly debatable evidence has emerged suggesting Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks. But did he not have ties to al Qaeda, and isn’t al Qaeda evil?

Here is an October 2002 letter from CIA Director George Tenet to Senator Pat Roberts that is quite relevant:

We have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade.

Credible information indicates that Iraq and al Qaeda have discussed safe haven and reciprocal non-aggression. Since Operation Enduring Freedom [the military operations that commenced shortly after September 11, 2001], we have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al-Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad.

We have credible reporting that al-Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to al-Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs.

Iraq’s increasing support to extremist Palestinians, coupled with growing indications of a relationship with al Qaeda, suggest that Baghdad’s links to terrorists will increase, even absent U.S. military action (emphasis added).

How about the aluminum tubes? According to numerous reports, including in the Times itself, Iraq had acquired, or was in the process of acquiring, some 60,000 of them before the U.S. invasion. 60,000 doesn’t sound like “non-existent” to Connecting the Dots. The real issue, as the Times presumably knows but found inconvenient to say, was what the tubes were going to be used for, a nuclear program or a rocket program? As the Times also presumably knows, there was a vigorous debate inside the intelligence community about this question. 

How about the African uranium? Was that also “non-existent”? Here the Times is referring to Bush’s first State of the Union address in which he uttered the soon-to-be controversial sixteen words: “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Whatever the Times might now be insinuating in its editorial, every single one of those words is true. That is exactly what British intelligence had learned and exactly what it told the United States. Bush’s speech had been vetted by the CIA, which had left the sixteen words in.

Finally, there are the non-existent “dangerous weapons” referred to by the Times. But the newspaper itself was warning about Iraq’s “dangerous weapons” at the very same moment, and on the basis of roughly the same evidence, that Bush was relying on, when he made the allegedly “false claims.” The question is: were Bush’s statements about these weapons (and the Times’s statements) “false” or were they knowingly false? There is a world of difference between the two, which the Times editorial page elects to fudge.

No President, concludes the Times editorial, wants all these “false claims” as his legacy. But when the history of this period is written, it is the knowingly false claims found day after day on the editorial pages of the New York Times that will deserve a chapter of their own.

What are we to make of President Bush’s final State of the Union Address? The New York Times has an answer. When it comes to Iraq, says the paper,

Mr. Bush’s annual addresses will be remembered most for his false claims — the fictitious “axis of evil,” nonexistent aluminum tubes and African uranium, dangerous weapons that did not exist. No President can want that as his legacy.

There’s a lot to unpack here. To begin with, is the “axis of evil” really “fictitious”? What is the Times driving at here? Perhaps it is quarreling with the use of the word “evil” to characterize North Korea, Iran, and Iraq under Saddam Hussein. But if the editors of the Times do not regard these particular dictatorships as evil, than what is?

Alternatively, perhaps the paper is quarreling with the word “axis.” But Connecting the Dots seems to recall that it was only this past September when North Korea was observed supplying some sort of nuclear technology to Syria, a close ally of Iran. Some reports suggest that Israel seized the material in its raid on a Syrian facility that month. Doesn’t such proliferation activity — along with North Korea’s collaboration with Iran in the field of offensive missiles — make for an “axis”? If not, how does the Times define “axis”?

One might also ask in response to the Times editorial: was Iraq under Saddam Hussein part of an axis of evil? True, only scant and highly debatable evidence has emerged suggesting Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks. But did he not have ties to al Qaeda, and isn’t al Qaeda evil?

Here is an October 2002 letter from CIA Director George Tenet to Senator Pat Roberts that is quite relevant:

We have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade.

Credible information indicates that Iraq and al Qaeda have discussed safe haven and reciprocal non-aggression. Since Operation Enduring Freedom [the military operations that commenced shortly after September 11, 2001], we have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al-Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad.

We have credible reporting that al-Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to al-Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs.

Iraq’s increasing support to extremist Palestinians, coupled with growing indications of a relationship with al Qaeda, suggest that Baghdad’s links to terrorists will increase, even absent U.S. military action (emphasis added).

How about the aluminum tubes? According to numerous reports, including in the Times itself, Iraq had acquired, or was in the process of acquiring, some 60,000 of them before the U.S. invasion. 60,000 doesn’t sound like “non-existent” to Connecting the Dots. The real issue, as the Times presumably knows but found inconvenient to say, was what the tubes were going to be used for, a nuclear program or a rocket program? As the Times also presumably knows, there was a vigorous debate inside the intelligence community about this question. 

How about the African uranium? Was that also “non-existent”? Here the Times is referring to Bush’s first State of the Union address in which he uttered the soon-to-be controversial sixteen words: “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Whatever the Times might now be insinuating in its editorial, every single one of those words is true. That is exactly what British intelligence had learned and exactly what it told the United States. Bush’s speech had been vetted by the CIA, which had left the sixteen words in.

Finally, there are the non-existent “dangerous weapons” referred to by the Times. But the newspaper itself was warning about Iraq’s “dangerous weapons” at the very same moment, and on the basis of roughly the same evidence, that Bush was relying on, when he made the allegedly “false claims.” The question is: were Bush’s statements about these weapons (and the Times’s statements) “false” or were they knowingly false? There is a world of difference between the two, which the Times editorial page elects to fudge.

No President, concludes the Times editorial, wants all these “false claims” as his legacy. But when the history of this period is written, it is the knowingly false claims found day after day on the editorial pages of the New York Times that will deserve a chapter of their own.

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War Bucks

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal ran a fascinating piece about the board game Monopoly’s usefulness during World War II. The game, apparently, was used by British intelligence to smuggle real currency, maps, metal files, compasses, and other implements to POWs via Red Cross shipments. Soldiers were told to “look out for the special editions, identified by a red dot in the Free Parking space.” This ingenious tactic was used during the cold war as well. Of course, Monopoly had to be swapped out for more culturally appropriate Eastern-bloc variations, such as the Soviet classic “Manage.”

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal ran a fascinating piece about the board game Monopoly’s usefulness during World War II. The game, apparently, was used by British intelligence to smuggle real currency, maps, metal files, compasses, and other implements to POWs via Red Cross shipments. Soldiers were told to “look out for the special editions, identified by a red dot in the Free Parking space.” This ingenious tactic was used during the cold war as well. Of course, Monopoly had to be swapped out for more culturally appropriate Eastern-bloc variations, such as the Soviet classic “Manage.”

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Have NoFEAR: The CIA Is on the Case

Not long after the attacks of 9/11 took the lives of some 3,000 Americans, Congress acted to pass the NoFEAR Act of 2002, putting the CIA under its strictures. If one were to guess by the title and the timing, one might conclude that the NoFEAR Act was designed to reconfigure our lead intelligence agency so that it would be well organized to locate, capture, and/or kill our terrorist adversaries. But one would be wrong. All that the the NoFear Act required was for the CIA to work harder in weeding out discrimination and to post summary statistics on its website about its progress in resolving complaints about things like “sexual” and “non-sexual” harassment. In 2005, the typical such complaint was under investigation for an average of 897 days. By the following year, the CIA had made a huge stride forward and the typical complaint was investigated for an average of only 396 days. 

Meanwhile, Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, Iran’s stark raving president, is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. Does the CIA have inside sources in Tehran that report to us what he tells his cabinet members, or microphones in his home so that we know what he chats about with his charming wife through her chador? I wouldn’t count on it.

Once upon a time, though, we had a very different kind of intelligence agency.

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Not long after the attacks of 9/11 took the lives of some 3,000 Americans, Congress acted to pass the NoFEAR Act of 2002, putting the CIA under its strictures. If one were to guess by the title and the timing, one might conclude that the NoFEAR Act was designed to reconfigure our lead intelligence agency so that it would be well organized to locate, capture, and/or kill our terrorist adversaries. But one would be wrong. All that the the NoFear Act required was for the CIA to work harder in weeding out discrimination and to post summary statistics on its website about its progress in resolving complaints about things like “sexual” and “non-sexual” harassment. In 2005, the typical such complaint was under investigation for an average of 897 days. By the following year, the CIA had made a huge stride forward and the typical complaint was investigated for an average of only 396 days. 

Meanwhile, Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, Iran’s stark raving president, is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. Does the CIA have inside sources in Tehran that report to us what he tells his cabinet members, or microphones in his home so that we know what he chats about with his charming wife through her chador? I wouldn’t count on it.

Once upon a time, though, we had a very different kind of intelligence agency.

During the cold war, when the divided city of Berlin was regularly the pivot point of world crises, America’s lead spy agency was vitally interested in knowing what the Russian military high command was talking about in its local headquarters and in its discussions with Moscow. As early as 1948, U.S. intelligence officers began to contemplate the possibility of tapping Soviet and East German communication lines. Sometime in 1952, an actual operation to do just that was set in motion: the Berlin Tunnel project, codenamed PBJOINTLY.  

A clandestine tunnel was mapped out—some 1,500 feet long, extending well into the Soviet zone where military communication cables were known to be buried. A major problem was how to handle the huge volume of extracted dirt without tipping off the omnipresent guards along the border. A number of different ideas were entertained. One CIA employee proposed digging a hole and dumping the dirt into it; out of this facetious suggestion a real solution to the problem was found.

That piquant detail, and the story of the tunnel operation in full, are recounted in an internal CIA history of the operation written in 1967 and only recently declassified (and made available in the invaluable online document repository maintained by the Federation of American Scientists). The episode may have been one of the great U.S. intelligence triumphs of the cold war. But as with all things in the intelligence wilderness of mirrors, maybe not.

The official history notes that the existence of the tunnel was disclosed to the Russians at its inception by a Soviet mole inside British intelligence. For unknown reasons Moscow may then have let it operate only to terminate it on their own schedule. But a good deal of countervailing evidence suggests that PBJOINTLY came to a more prosaic end brought about by bad weather.

In April 1956, heavy rain caused some short-circuits in Soviet cables; repair efforts were made to restore the broken links; in the course of replacing aging lines, Soviet technicians found the equipment chamber at the end of the tunnel where the Americans were tapping their communications. But the CIA, which was very clever back then, had put an official looking sign on the entrance in Russian and German: “Entry Forbidden by Order of the Commanding General.” In case the instruction was disobeyed, they had also placed a microphone inside the chamber. The conversations the CIA picked up made it clear that the Soviets had no idea what they had stumbled upon. Only gradually, as they Russians investigated further, did the nature of the chamber dawn on them.

With that, after eleven months and eleven days of operation, the CIA tunnel project came to an end.  While it was running, however, it provided a wealth of highly sensitive information about Soviet politics and military developments in a range of spheres, including discussion of unrest among Soviet nuclear scientists. The official history comments on the information’s reliability: “Despite our knowledge that certain elements of the Soviet government were aware of our plans to tap these cables, we have no evidence that the Soviets attempted to feed us deception material through this source.”

Could American intelligence replicate such a feat today? We don’t know what we don’t know about the CIA’s successes, so it may be unfair to judge. But with the agency attempting to comply with a hundred absurd congressional mandates that have turned it into a timid and paralytic bureaucracy, it seems highly unlikely. We are in the midst of one of the most dangerous moments in our history, and given what it tells us about our own lack of seriousness in matters of intelligence, the NoFEAR Act itself is one of the major things we have to fear.

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Low and Dishonest

W.H. Auden was born February 21, 1907, and his centenary year is therefore upon us. “We have one poet of genius today,” wrote Cyril Connolly in 1938 in his inquisitorial memoir Enemies of Promise. This praise has become more or less received opinion, as Auden’s reputation continues to rise, and the debt of contemporary poets to his style of intellect and clever comment remains as evident as ever.

One snag is that Auden in the 1930’s was a Communist fellow-traveler of the silliest kind. Writing his memoir, Connolly certainly knew and approved of the poem “Spain,” which Auden had published the previous year to register his Communist sympathies. “Tomorrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,” is a line that still lingers in the public memory. A more sinister totalitarian recommendation in that poem is “The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.” This caught the eye of George Orwell, who famously savaged Auden as someone who would be elsewhere when it came to pulling the trigger.

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W.H. Auden was born February 21, 1907, and his centenary year is therefore upon us. “We have one poet of genius today,” wrote Cyril Connolly in 1938 in his inquisitorial memoir Enemies of Promise. This praise has become more or less received opinion, as Auden’s reputation continues to rise, and the debt of contemporary poets to his style of intellect and clever comment remains as evident as ever.

One snag is that Auden in the 1930’s was a Communist fellow-traveler of the silliest kind. Writing his memoir, Connolly certainly knew and approved of the poem “Spain,” which Auden had published the previous year to register his Communist sympathies. “Tomorrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,” is a line that still lingers in the public memory. A more sinister totalitarian recommendation in that poem is “The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.” This caught the eye of George Orwell, who famously savaged Auden as someone who would be elsewhere when it came to pulling the trigger.

Given his fellow-traveling, Auden might have been expected to welcome joining the war against Nazi Germany. Instead, 1939 found him in New York, where he sat out the whole period of the Nazi-Soviet pact and wrote another line that stays in the public memory, condemning the “low dishonest decade” then on the point of expiring. Auden’s evasion in New York was too much even for Connolly, who was no good at literary or political enmities. Auden then dropped the infantile Leftism, turned Christian, started re-writing his poems to take out the pro-Soviet nonsense, and so reached apotheosis as a Grand Old Man.

But the Auden centenary now brings up another snag. In May 1951, the Soviet agents Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean were tipped off by their handler, Kim Philby, that they were about to be arrested, and they were ordered to seek refuge in Moscow at once. The day before Burgess fled, he contacted Stephen Spender, whose career as a poet was carried out in Auden’s shadow, to ask him how to contact Auden. It is not quite clear whether Auden was staying with Spender at the time, or was already away in his summer home on Ischia, the island off Naples.

This week, the opening of British intelligence files reveals that when Burgess went missing, Spender informed them of that last-minute telephone call, and also that he had passed the message on to Auden. When intelligence officers questioned Auden, he inexplicably lied to them, denying that Spender had told him anything, and added, “He must have been drunk.” Auden had become an American citizen by then, and the FBI wanted to interrogate him. In due course, in mid-June, the Italian police questioned Auden, and the documents show that he “reluctantly admitted that Spender was probably right.”

Why the lying and prevarication? Most essentially, what could Burgess have had in mind when trying to get hold of Auden as virtually the last thing he did before going into exile, never to return? Was he about to appeal to Auden for protection? There may be an innocent explanation, in that the two had known one another for many years; both were homosexual, and had friends in common. The very least that can be said is that Auden appears to have been anxious to hide something, and in the circumstances this was active fellow-traveling. So in spite of his undoubted great gifts, he was contributing his bit towards making yet another decade low and dishonest.

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