American Comintern: Six decades of covert operations in Britain

[My latest piece at Spinwatch.]

Is the Cold War the best guide to how Britain should deal with Islam? That is what Charles Moore suggested in a speech to the Centre for Policy Studies last month:

Think of the long debate about how best to deal with trade union militancy and with its relationship to Communist infiltration during the Cold War. It was not, in fact, the Conservatives who first tried to tackle this. It began as a conflict within the Labour movement in which a few brave souls, like Frank Chapple of the Electricians, would not bow to the extremist tactics.

As Moore admits, ‘the analogies between British trade unions and an ancient world religion are inexact, to put it mildly.’ Nevertheless, the anti-communist paradigm is becoming increasingly influential as a template for dealing with Islamist extremism. Moore’s Policy Exchange colleague Dean Godson wrote in 2006:

During the Cold War, organisations such as the Information Research Department of the Foreign Office would assert the superiority of the West over its totalitarian rivals. And magazines such as Encounter did hand-to-hand combat with Soviet fellow travellers. For any kind of truly moderate Islam to flourish, we need first to recapture our own self-confidence. At the moment, the extremists largely have the field to themselves.

As I have noted previously, the Information Research Department and Encounter were both covert operations, created as part of a wider effort known as the ‘Cultural Cold War.’ The CIA ran Encounter through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which was secretly funded throughout the 1950s and early 1960s to carry out propaganda among European intellectuals. Some of those involved had carried out similar activities for Moscow in the 1920s and 1930s as agents of the Comintern.

One former Comintern delegate was Jay Lovestone, the one-time head of the American Communist Party and disciple of Nikolai Bukharin. His Communist Party (Opposition) faction of the 1930s became over time an anti-communist network with close links to the US Government.

Jay Lovestone, Irving Brown’s boss, [from] 1955 was run by James Jesus Angleton. Lovestone’s task was to infiltrate European trade unions, weed out dubious elements, and promote the rise of leaders acceptable to Washington. During this period, Lovestone supplied Angleton with voluminous reports on trade union affairs in Britain, compiled with the assistance of his contacts in the TUC and the Labour Party.[1]

A key member of the Lovestoneite network in Britain was Dean Godson’s father, the US labour attaché, Joseph Godson. He attempted to ‘weed out’ the founder of the NHS, Aneurin Bevan, while promoting the rival Labour Party faction led by Hugh Gaitskell.

Gaitskell held a series of secret meetings at the Russell Hotel, where he planned the expulsion campaign with Sam Watson, the leader of the Durham miners. Also in attendance was the Labour Attaché at the American Embassy in London, Joe Godson. One of the most important post-war events in the Labour Party’s internal affairs was overseen by an American spook.[2]

The fullest description of Godson’s role is in Hugh Wilford’s Calling the Tune?, an admirably nuanced account which is often sympathetic to US labour diplomacy:

his Lovestonite style – obsessively anti-communist, hectoring, conspiratorial – in time alienated even his closest allies. For example, Arthur Deakin, that most hardline of Labour anti-communists, entertained misgivings about his involvement in TUC affairs, while Gaitskell himself had similar concerns about his role in the Labour Party.[3]

Joe Godson retained his interest in British affairs after moving to other diplomatic posts. He helped to found the Labour Committee for Transatlantic Understanding, a little-known organisation that came to the attention of the Guardian in the mid-1980s because it was funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, which had become embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal.

The committee is the labour section of the British Atlantic Committee, which lobbies for Nato among European trade unionists.

It has no connection with the Labour Party but its members include figures from the Labour and trade union rightwing, including Lord Chapple, Mr Roy Mason, and Lord Stewart, former Labour foreign secretary. One of its American vice-presidents, Mr Lane Kirland, is on NED’s board of directors.

Funding of the committee, founded in 1976 by a former US embassy labour attache, Mr Joseph Godson, remained a secret until 1980, when the British government said that Nato had given pounds 32,000 over the previous four years. Mr Godson told the Guardian that he understood the money had come from the American Youth Council. He had complained to the endowment fund for its inaccuracy, but ‘I don’t object to anything which funds a good cause.'[4]

Among those implicated in the Iran-Contra affair was Joe Godson’s elder son. In 1981, Roy Godson was appointed by Elliot Abrams to head the International Youth Year Commission, which came under Congressional investigation in 1987.[5] Although he escaped prosecution, an independent counsel’s report concluded that he had helped Oliver North channel funding to the Contras through the Heritage Foundation.

Roy Godson went onto become a leading figure in the academic study of intelligence, with a particular expertise in propaganda, disinformation, covert action and counterintelligence. As head of the National Strategy Information Center, he presided over the development of a distinctive neo-con philosophy of intelligence:

Two longtime advocates of the type of flexible intelligence operation put in motion by Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith are Abram Shulsky and Gary Schmitt, senior associates at the National Strategy Information Center (NSIC) in the 1990s. The NSIC along with a half-dozen other think-tanks and committees produced reports in the mid-1990s that recommended intelligence reforms. As it turns out, the NSIC’s recommendations had the most influence in shaping the intelligence practices of the George W Bush administration.

In a 1998 essay Shulsky and Schmitt linked this emerging theory of intelligence to the philosophy of Leo Strauss. Shulsky in particular would have the opportunity to put that theory into practice as head of the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans prior to the Iraq War.

Journalist Robert Dreyfuss captured a snapshot of the situation in the run-up to the conflict in December 2002:

Even as it prepares for war against Iraq, the Pentagon is already engaged on a second front: its war against the Central Intelligence Agency.  The Pentagon is bringing relentless pressure to bear on the agency to produce intelligence reports more supportive of war with Iraq, according to former CIA officials.  Key officials of the Department of Defense are also producing their own unverified intelligence reports to justify war.  Much of the questionable information comes from Iraqi exiles long regarded with suspicion by CIA professionals.  A parallel, ad hoc intelligence operation, in the office of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith, collects the information from the exiles and scours other raw intelligence for useful tidbits to make the case for preemptive war.  These morsels sometimes go directly to the president.

“Informed sources say the person in charge of the unnamed unit is Abram Shulsky, another key member of the Perle-Wolfowitz war party,” Dreyfuss noted. “Roy Godson, the head of the Consortium for the Study of Intelligence and a colleague of Shulsky’s for many years, has high hopes for the success of the Pentagon’s Iraq intelligence unit, despite its small size when arrayed against the CIA’s might.  ‘It might turn out to be a David against Goliath,’ says Godson.”6

At the same time, Feith’s office was devising plans to revive covert operations in Europe, with a new focus on Islam. In December 2002, The New York Times reported that "the Defense Department is considering issuing a secret directive to the American military to conduct covert operations aimed at influencing public opinion and policy makers in friendly and neutral countries."

Such a program, for example, could include efforts to discredit and undermine the influence of mosques and religious schools that have become breeding grounds for Islamic militancy and anti-Americanism across the Middle East, Asia and Europe. It might even include setting up schools with secret American financing to teach a moderate Islamic position laced with sympathetic depictions of how the religion is practiced in America, officials said.      

Not everyone in the Pentagon was happy about these proposals:

Some are troubled by suggestions that the military might pay journalists to write stories favorable to American policies or hire outside contractors without obvious ties to the Pentagon to organize rallies in support of American policies.

Implementing this strategy would have required changes to the Pentagon directive governing information operations, allowing ‘adversarial decision-making’ to be targeted, rather than the more restrictive ‘adversary decision-making.’ Former US Army Colonel Sam Gardiner has claimed that a 2003 London conference was briefed about a change on exactly these lines by Captain Gerald Mauer, the Pentagon’s Assistant Deputy Director for Information Operations.

Gardiner has compiled a list of misleading news stories which he believes resulted from such information operations. A notable inclusion is the April 2003 series of stories claiming that George Galloway had received payoffs from Saddam Hussein. One of the papers which ran the story was the Daily Telegraph, then under Charles Moore’s editorship. The Telegraph was ultimately ordered to pay Galloway £150,000 in damages as a result.

After leaving the Telegraph, Moore would go on to chair Policy Exchange, the think-tank which the BBC accused of fabricating evidence about British mosques.

In advocating a return to cold war covert operations, Moore and Godson do nothing to allay the fear that such episodes are the results of methods that owe more to the world of intelligence than the ethos of journalism or scholarship.


1. Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War by Frances Stonor Saunders, Granta Books 2000, pp329-30. 

2. Smear! Wilson & the Secret State, by Stephen Dorril and Robin Ramsay, Fourth Estate Limited 1991, p14.

3. The CIA, the British Left and the Cold War, Calling the Tune? By Hugh Wilford, Frank Cass Publishers 2003, p180.

Britons get cash from US ‘slush fund’ / British organisations receiving money from US sources to ‘promote democracy’, The Guardian, 9 December 1985.

5. House probes link between Contras and youth commission, by Pat O’Brien, United Press International, 23 March 1987.

6. The Pentagon Muzzles the CIA; Devising bad intelligence to promote bad policy, by Robert Dreyfuss, The American Prospect, 16 December 2002.






2 responses to “American Comintern: Six decades of covert operations in Britain”

  1. WorldbyStorm avatar

    Wow, the CP(O). Lovestone was a remarkable character, one wonders did he have an ounce of sincerity at any point after the early days, or was it all careerism. The only thing that strikes me as a distinct difference between the Cold War and the contemporary period is that the object of such exercises is so much more amorphous. The USSR and Warsaw pact was a very clearly definable adversary, as were its proxies in the West (I’m not incidentally making value judgements here, simply treating the argument on its own terms). By contrast Islamist thinking is much much more diffuse. I think the dangers in such a covert proactive approach for error and so on are enormous and disturbing.

  2. Tom Griffin avatar

    Hi WBS sorry I missed this comment.
    Motivations are always opaque, I think, but I wonder how Lovestone’s career would have panned out if his patron had emerged as top dog in the Soviet Union.
    The shift towards a more amorphous target actually started in the 80s when the hawks in Washington were trying to link Moscow to international terrorism.
    There’s a very good account in Adam Curtis’ series the power of nightmares, about how William Casey insisted on using evidence from Claire Sterling’s book The Power of Nightmares to formulate policy, even though the CIA told him it was based on their disinformation.

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