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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Reforming FOI to unlock the secrets of intelligence history

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Alexander Wilson’s spy series featuring the fictional Sir Leonard Wallace re-published by Allison and Busby in 2015-16.

There has been some good news on the FOI front with the new Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, saying she supports the expansion of the Act to include private companies that provide public services.

The UK’s FOI system, has been described by Tony Blair, the Prime Minister who introduced it, as his greatest mistake. He thought he was a ‘nincompoop’ for giving the green light to statutory rights to official information.

But there are huge chambers of secrets that remain totally dark in multiple lawyers of government and state body operations.

This is certainly true of the section 23 absolute exemption that denies any public interest test for the release of information relating to ‘security bodies’ such as MI5, MI6, and GCHQ.

It might seem perfectly understandable that the exemption applies to matters relating to national security. But the lock on information goes back to a time when the people identified in the files are all dead, and took part in the operations from the early part of the 20th century.

And this is where grave injustices and absurdities are being generated not only for historians and investigative journalists, but for surviving family members of people connected to the events covered up.

The espionage, crime and romance author, Alexander Wilson was highly acclaimed and had over twenty novels published between 1928 and 1940.

The recent publication of nine of his spy novels prompted the Daily Mail to say ‘James Bond may find he has a worthy rival.’ Wilson worked for Section 10 of Secret Intelligence Service between 1939 and 1942. His MI6 unit specialised in bugging embassies and diplomatic legations of friendly and neutral countries in London.

He was a listener and interpreter. The unit worked 250 lines and the surveillance included the operations of countries such as Sweden, China, Switzerland, the Free French, Polish government in Exile, the US Embassy, Portugal, Iran/Persia, Turkey, and Egypt. His intelligence reports were circulated to the Prime-Minister Winston Churchill, and all the intelligence agencies.

The author and SIS intelligence officer Alexander Wilson in 1940. Image: Copyright Alexander Wilson Estate.
The author and SIS intelligence officer Alexander Wilson in 1940. Image: Copyright Alexander Wilson Estate.agencies and were known as ‘Special Material.’
It is possible to find the ’top secret’ document at the National Archives from the Foreign Office asking the Post Office to bug the lines of the Egyptian Embassy in August 1942 ‘without mentioning the missions.’

Wilson was listening into Grosvenor 4621 and 4622. Since 1939 he had specialised in tracking the speech and behaviour of the Egyptian Ambassador and his diplomats.

The operation was critical to British military operations in North Africa which became the only theatre of direct battle with Axis forces after the fall of France in 1940.

Under the new General Bernard Montgomery, it was essential that the Eighth Army defeated Rommel and his Africa Korps at the Battle of El Alamein in the autumn of 1942.

The Egyptian Ambassador, Hassan Nachat Pasha, had previously been Ambassador in Berlin for ten years and knew the Nazi leadership intimately. Nachat was suspected of being part of an Egyptian political elite hoping that Germany and Italy would defeat the British.

A declassified secret file released to the Public Record Office in May 2013 titled ‘The case of the Egyptian Ambassador’ revealed that Alexander Wilson was dismissed from SIS in October 1942 because he faked a burglary and had been in serious trouble with the police.

An MI5 officer called Alex Kellar had been tasked to investigate Wilson’s reports indicating the Egyptian Ambassador in London and his staff were intelligence gathering against the interests of Great Britain and her Allies. Kellar concluded Wilson had fabricated the reports.

The head of Foreign Office, Sir Alexander Cadogan, the MI5 Director General and ‘C’ of MI6 condemned Wilson as a serious public danger, a ‘master of fiction’, who had produced ‘pure invention.’

The third ‘C’ Sir Stewart Menzies said: ‘I do not think it at all likely that we shall again have the bad luck to strike a man who combines a blameless record, first rate linguistic abilities, remarkable gifts as a writer of fiction, and no sense of responsibility in using them!’

The file indicates the Foreign Secretary and Secretary of State for War Sir Anthony Eden read and took a great interest in the report. The file also makes clear that the government were determined that Alexander Wilson would be prevented from obtaining any kind of official or responsible employment.

Front cover of Alexander Wilson's novel 'Wallace Intervenes' published in 1939. Image: Alexander Wilson Estate.
Front cover of Alexander Wilson’s novel ‘Wallace Intervenes’ published in 1939. Image: Alexander Wilson Estate.
He was never published anywhere again. He and his third wife and family were plunged into abject poverty and near destitution. At one time one of this sons was sent to a children’s home. Another was considered being given up for adoption.

His son from his second marriage was told that his father had been killed at the battle of El Elamein and never saw him again. In the early 1950s he worked as a hospital porter in a local NHS casualty unit. He died in obscurity in 1963.

For some mysterious reason the Alex Kellar MI5 file that claims to discredit Wilson on the basis of a single sensitive source has been withheld under the FOI Section 23 absolute exemption.

One reason might be that Kellar was working for the KGB traitor Anthony Blunt who headed the MI5 section intelligence gathering from London embassies. The British intelligence establishment did not know that Blunt was telling his KGB controllers in Moscow that his main agent targeting the Egyptian ambassador was unreliable. She has been named as the socialite Lady Dalrymple Champneys.

What is also in the public domain is that other secret files released to the PRO confirm that the Egyptian Ambassador was collecting intelligence in London and discussing post war relations with the Soviet Ambassador.

When Nachat went on leave to Cairo in 1944, he plotted the overthrow of the pro-British Egyptian government installed two years previously.  The British ambassador in Cairo, Sir Miles Lampson, begged the Foreign Office to engineer Nachat’s recall to London saying: ‘Nachat is being a political nuisance and his early return to London would be a blessing.’

Major A.W. Sansom of Egyptian field security in Cairo published his memoirs in 1965 and said the majority of the Egyptian elite and armed forces were pro German and Italian and actively working against the British.

He said prior to 1942 ‘Under an almost openly pro- German Prime Minister Aly Maher Pasha, for nine months the Egyptian Government gave our enemies all the aid it possibly could.’

A United Nations file from 1948 reveals German intelligence and Foreign Office documents proving the Egyptian diplomatic service was playing a double game with the British even after the defeat of Rommel at El Alamein 1942.

Plans were discussed to smuggle King Farouk into exile in Berlin, and bomb Tel Aviv. Hitler & Ribbentrop exchanged secret overtures of support and hopes for British defeat in Egypt with King Farouk’s diplomats.

United Nations Report on Egyptian and Nazi German collaboration published in 1948.
United Nations Report on Egyptian and Nazi German collaboration published in 1948. Image: University of Michigan.

All of this evidence suggest a prima facie case that Alexander Wilson had been the victim of a plot hatched to discredit him and his MI6 surveillance operation so that the covert KGB operative Anthony Blunt could take over at MI5.

Rather than fake his own burglary in October 1942, had Wilson’s flat been the target of an MI5 or KGB raid to fit him up?

Some light on these intriguing questions could be shone if FOI requests to release the Kellar file and indeed all MI6 documents relating to Alexander Wilson were agreed to.

It has taken two years to get to the Information Tribunal where all of the obvious public interest issues have been completely ignored because of the absolute exemption rule.

An attempt was made to challenge this barrier by arguing the situation is a breach of freedom of expression in English common law and under the European Convention of Human Rights. It was argued that the privacy rights of Wilson’s children had been breached; particularly as the information might help explain why in 1942 a 9 year old boy was cruelly forced to falsely grieve over the death of his father.

Privacy is about human dignity, identity, and the right to family life- what happened to Wilson and his family from the end of 1942 was catastrophic and could amount to a state crime.

It was further argued that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 creating an absolute exemption in relation to MI6 and MI5 could only cover the period from when these security bodies had been properly established in law  from 1989 and 1994.
Secret Intelligence Service Headquarters in Broadway London during the Second World War. Image: Tim Crook.
Secret Intelligence Service Headquarters in Broadway London during the Second World War. Image: Tim Crook.

What happened over 70 years ago related to Foreign Office historical files which should be subject to the public interest test.

All of these arguments have been rejected. It seems very unlikely that these secrets will ever be prised open through FOI litigation in the near future.

The Times journalist Duncan Kennedy has fought doggedly to unpick another absolute exemption blocking his investigative work into George Galloway’s Mariam Appeal.

His original FOI requests were made in 2007. Nearly 10 years later, after countless legal hearings up to UK Supreme Court level, the steel shutters of absolute exemption remain.

The CIoJ is the only journalism body campaigning for the engagement of the public interest test in relation to historical files held by ‘security bodies’ for more than 30 years. The absolute exemption rule is undemocratic, oppressive and counter-historical.

It is also unspeakably cruel to many of Alexander Wilson’s relatives who may not live to see the day when documents are eventually released to explain the tragedy and trauma of their own family history.