The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Touched by a Tentacle

This morning I came across via Avedon Carol an intriguing article on the influence of right-wing think tanks, and via that, the even more revelatory Cursor's Media Transparency, which tells you who's paying which pipers (and why they all play the same tune). It's reminded me of the few times when I've felt the clammy suckers of capital's covert-action tentacles on the back of my own neck.

The first time was innocent enough. It was in the early 1970s, when I was a zoology student. One of my tutors casually mentioned that his research on malaria was funded by the US Army. (That particular grant was around the same time listed along with many others in a CND pamphlet about military funding of academic research, 'Study War No More'.) As I say, in itself innocent enough, and perhaps defensible (I have no idea what the conditions of the grant were, and no wish to impugn the recipient). The fact remained that the purpose of the grant - whatever its benevolent effects may have been - was (or seemed to me at the time) quite obviously to help US military interventions in countries where malaria is prevalent. I had the strange sensation that something had reached into the room, and connected us to the jungles of Vietnam.

The second time I felt the tentacle's touch was a bit more personal. I was watching the 10 October 1999 episode of the BBC series 'The Spying Game', which focused on how the peace movement in the West, and the dissident movements in the East, had been influenced by the intelligence and state security agencies of both sides. (I was startled to learn that the lefty peacenik Canon Paul Ostreicher had been reporting back his meetings with GDR dissidents to the British Embassy, though not as startled as he was when told the Stasi had taped him doing so.)

An interview with Walt Raymond (CIA, Eastern Europe, 1970-1982) established that the CIA had been supporting East European dissidents during the 1970s. In 1982, with Ronald Reagan's speech setting out the new ground rules for what the British called 'maximum engagement' i.e. as much official and unofficial contact as possible with the dissidents, this support passed to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) a notorious loose cannon of US subversion nominally independent of the CIA but with the same aims and the same channels.

'One route for NED's money,' the BBC programme explained, 'was Jan Kavan,' the exiled Czech dissident from the 1968 generation. 'He had a special van, built with a secret compartment, in order to smuggle thousands of books and printing machines into Czechoslovakia. [...] Kavan was also given thousands of books by the International Literary Centre in New York, which is now known to have been funded directly by the CIA.'

That made me sit up, because I'd been in that van!

In the autumn of 1977 I travelled from London to Prague in Kavan's van, accompanied by a fellow member of the small Trotskyist group I was in at the time; with, to the best of my knowledge, the approval of its leadership. In the van's secret compartments were 2000 copies of Kavan's emigre journal Listy, many copies of books including a Russian edition of The Gulag Archipelago, and a selection of Western journals, news magazines, etc.

I needn't go into the details of how the operation was carried out. Let's just say that elaborate precautions were taken to conceal the van's identity and owner. We passed successfully through several borders and a (routine) gunpoint search by Czech border guards. The basic tradecraft for making contact was as described on the programme by Kavan (by 1999 the Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic) and his contacts from that time. We had several cover stories to use if we got caught, but our bottom line was that we could admit that we were doing it on behalf of Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, a journal then as now supported by people from a broad range of positions on the anti-Stalinist left.

On the way back I happened to notice a piece of litter in the passenger footwell and picked it up. It was a receipt from a garage in England for work on the van, made out to Jan Kavan. Considering all the precautions we'd taken, this was something of a security lapse.

Afterwards, we were 'debriefed' at our home by a man who, from what I was told at the time, I took to be Jan Kavan. My memory of his appearance is certainly consistent with Kavan's. (After the fall of the Communist regime Kavan, ironically in view of all this, was charged - and acquitted in a Czech court - of having collaborated with the Czechoslovak Communist-era secret police, the STB. Robin Cook, the then British Foreign Secretary, is reported to have vouched for Kavan as 'a friend of Britain'.)

Other members of the group had made the same trip before. My impression is that it was regular and frequent. I don't know how long the group's involvement in this trip continued.

None of this, of course, proves that Kavan was being supported by the CIA in 1977, although substantially the same operation obviously was so supported not long afterwards. Nor does it even suggest that Kavan's later CIA connection was known to the group or to Labour Focus. There are no articles under Kavan's name in Labour Focus after 1978.

However, the expose did give me something to throw in the faces of Trots who called me names for hob-nobbing with libertarians, or for upholding positions unpopular on the present-day left that were considered left-wing back when I originally acquired them. I'd probably have remained a lot closer to the libertarians than to the socialists I now hang out with, if it hadn't been for a third touch of the tentacle.

Early in 2001 I got a phone call from a libertarian acquaintance of long standing. He asked if I was willing to be the contact person and general front-man for an ostensibly left-wing website that would advocate some policies currently out of favour on the left, but with good deep roots in the history of the working-class movement. (Not in substance reactionary policies, I hasten to add.) This site would be maintained and paid for, and I would be paid a retainer by, a lobbying organisation for some of the companies and non-profit bodies involved in the area in question. The source of the funding, and the inspiration for the site, would be covert. Because the idea was to make it look like a left-wing initiative, independent of the existing (and, I again hasten to add, entirely legitimate) commercial interests in this policy area. Astroturf, in short.

I said that I'd always kept all my dealings and associations out in the open, and that I wouldn't do it, thank you. End of conversation. Thinking about it afterwards, I was quite annoyed. I'd just been asked to trade on my left-wing credibility in order to do something that would destroy my left-wing - not to mention personal - credibility if it ever came out. What did he take me for?

And that's one reason why I'll carry the SSP's or even the CP's red flag, even though I don't agree with everything they stand for. It's to keep the clammy suckers off my skin.


You had me at Touched by a Tentacle :)

Much thanks for linking to my blog!

All Best,
Chris Kouju

You're welcome!

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