Book review: Baghdad’s Spy – A personal memoir of espionage and intrigue from Iraq to London by Corinne Souza
Baghdad’s Spy was first published by Mainstream Publishing Company (Edinburgh) Ltd in 2003. This article is based on the 2004 edition.
Baghdad’s Spy is a portrait of espionage as told from the perspective of the daughter of a senior British spy. Starting in Iraq, where her father was recruited by Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) otherwise known as MI6, she recalls the nature of Baghdad’s elite in the 1960s; gives an insight into the social circles her father used to mix in as part of his work; how her father’s harmonious relationship with the SIS collapsed in the 1970s and 1980s and exposes problems within SIS prior to the 1991 Gulf War.
This revealing memoir although at times is quite personal contains some interesting revelations. The father of the author was a confirmed MI6 agent as evidenced by the scanned copy of a letter to Miss de Souza from the British Prime Ministers Private Secretary, William Chapman dated13 April 1994 that is included in the book.
Corinne is an expert on Britain’s commercial lobbying industry and has been a contributor to the espionage journal Lobster since 2000. A graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London she is the daughter of a now deceased Arab Christian businessman spy who at one time was the Secret Intelligence Services (MI6) foremost authority in Iraq.
I have highlighted certain points of interest and have included them under subheadings and have inserted certain quotations from the book that shed light on these areas.
This book indicates the reality of the Anglo-American struggle within the Middle East at the time and in Iraq in particular, it sheds light on the sly tactics employed by the British. It dispels the notion that the Anglo-American struggle and the covert use of intelligence services who recruit amongst the influential sectors of societies in order to directly influence events within those nations is some ‘conspiracy theory’. From the very first paragraph this conflict for control is highlighted:
“In 1958, the Boy King of Iraq was murdered and the monarchy overthrown. President Qassem declared the Iraqi Republic. The collapse of the monarchy confirmed the continued diminution of British power in the Middle East and exacerbated fears that President Nasser of Egypt would ‘export’ Arab nationalism throughout the area. This posed a threat to British oil companies. BP, for example, was frantic that SIS defend its interests against such nationalism and, as importantly protect it from American rivals.” [Baghdad’s Spy, pg. 21]
The obvious backing of one ruler over another is shown throughout: “SIS pleasure at the toppling of President Qassem...” [pg. 22]
“My father was never an ‘agent of influence’. Instead, he was expected to rise in Baghdad’s society and gather intelligence on people, armaments and commercial contracts. SIS’s goals in the Middle East were to combat the ‘Nasser effect’ – the rise of Arab nationalism following the Suez war of 1956 – prevent the Soviets from increasing their influence and stop oil supplies shifting to American oil companies.” [pg. 27]
Government officials are directly recruited as sources and tempted by financial remuneration, a practice which undoubtedly continues today.
“One of my father’s key successes was the recruitment of a source from within an important Iraqi ministry. Substantial sums of money were paid to the source by my father on behalf of the Crown. Eventually, an overseas bank account was established. Payment was made directly, in sterling.” [pg. 27]
“Further evidence of my father’s role in Iraq is inadvertently confirmed by Sir Dick White, the former head of SIS and MI5. In Tom Bower’s biography of White, Sir Dick is quoted as saying with pride, ‘Baghdad was one of the few locations where SIS could insert a locally born British national into the government.’ This refers to my father. Although, as I have said, he was not in the government, he was particularly close to it, and to my knowledge there was no other ‘locally born British nationals’ fitting this description. I think the discrepancy was because Sir Dick was unfamiliar with the details.” [pg. 86]
“My father believed SIS’s job, and his role within it, was to promote British political/commercial interests in the Middle East; resist Soviet penetration; and protect Britain’s oil investment, or, when this was no longer possible, ensure the safety and supply of cheap oil. He believed this could mean, if necessary, SIS could actively influence the internal affairs of sovereign states in whichever way they saw fit.” [pg. 120]
The influence of Communism was also an obvious worry for the Western powers which they closely monitored.
“The new spy developed into a bold collector of information. Suave and charming, with enormous social confidence, my father had a talent for friendship. This enabled him to mix freely in Iraqi society and the diplomatic community, especially with diplomats from the Soviet embassy and satellite countries. He provided profiles of Iraqi military and political personalities, many of whom were his friends, as well as intelligence on their plans, and relationships with Soviets and Arab countries.” [pg. 28]
The view that the British still see the countries that used to be part of its empire as their own is confirmed by the book.
“According to my father, SIS did not see Afghanistan, Pakistan or India in any terms other than Empire.” [pg. 29]
Contrary to the portrayal of the ‘special relationship’ it is known that Britain does not share all its intelligence with America.
“My father did not believe that the UK shared much information with the Americans, despite the official line, ‘Because ‘Geoffrey’ trusts no one. Good SIS diplomats do not even tell their superiors what is going on. They only tell people what they want them to know. This includes the hierarchy. Besides, ‘Geoffrey’ thinks that the Americans talk too much.” [pg. 119]
“If the Blunt affair opened his eyes to the scale of his own naivety, so did various books. These included founding CIA agent Miles Copeland’s The Game of Nations. This upset many SIS, first because Copeland had published at all; second, because it airbrushed SIS’s contribution to the American intelligence effort. (Irrespective of what is said today, SIS did not have an enormous respect for the Americans. The feeling, was apparently, was mutual.)” [pg. 233]
Corinne’s father was a Christian with an Indian father and Arab mother, born in 1921 in Iraq when it was under British mandate and thus he had British citizenship. He studied at the American Jesuit College but was unable to continue his education beyond high school as his millionaire Indian father had gone bankrupt. In 1941 he became an English-Arabic translator at the British embassy where he remained until the end of the Second World War. [pg. 22]
After visiting London in 1949 he married an English Christian lady and took her to Iraq with him. They used to mix amongst the elite high society in Baghdad which proved useful to him in his later role as an MI6 agent:
“Recalling the party at the British embassy held to celebrate the Queen’s coronation in 1953, my father said, ‘Those of us with English wives were invited. One couple in our group were staunch Communists. We all thought this a great joke. Of course, we had no idea that a few years later the Iraqi monarchy would be over and the husband of the Communist couple, who remained our very dear friends, would become important.’” [pg. 23]
His family history, anti-Communist attitude, his good Arabic and previous work at the British embassy is likely to have led him to be a target for recruitment.
“He was contacted by Sandy Goschen. My father was aged 36, Goschen 7 years older. Today, Goschen would be called an intelligence officer under diplomatic cover. My father understood him to be a diplomat.”
“My father never asked Goschen how SIS first talent-spotted him. He believed that my Indian grandfather, prior to his bankruptcy, had been a British source and espionage can pass from one generation to the next. My father’s school records (always, significant when recruiting a spy) would have been acceptable, confirming that he was anti-Communist. These would have been passed to London during the war when he worked at the British embassy in Baghdad.” [pg. 24-25]
His relationship with junior army officers in the new Iraqi republic regime was also undoubtedly important. This demonstrates how the intelligence services of the Western powers think ahead aiming to influence the power structures within strategically important foreign countries.
“My father was an ideal SIS candidate because SIS had very few Arabists, and those it did have were based in Beirut. These people were not universally respected. More importantly, my father knew some of the junior army officers – some of whom had British wives – in the new Iraqi republican regime...He was the first to admit that had the monarchy not been swept aside, SIS would not have recruited him. It did so because it hoped that as his friends rose in rank, he would retain their friendship and rise with them, which he did.” [pg. 25]
As a senior spy he would also directly have meetings in Whitehall and meet politicians.
“Now an established SIS spy, my father flew to London on several occasions. He had meetings in Whitehall, and was lunched in the House of Commons (1964) by SIS’s oil MP at Westminster, a senior Conservative, who was also a director of a British oil company (name withheld).” [pg. 35]
Freemasons and Social clubs
He was a part of the Freemasons and was a member of the Masonic lodge in Baghdad. The fifth chapter of the book is entitled, ‘The Freemasons of Iraq’ and gives an insight to the Masonic network.
“It offered many advantages. These included the fact that it was open to all ‘believers’ irrespective of religious faith. Therefore, Christian and Jewish freemasons, who were otherwise excluded from Iraqi politics, were able to meet Muslim ones, some of whom were participants of Iraqi politics, as equals.” [pg. 58]
“Freemasonry was particularly strong during the monarchy. All prominent Iraqis were members...Through the lodge, I met all the important people in Baghdad” [pg. 59]
The prestigious social clubs were also useful to him as a place to mix and socialise with the elite.
“Much to SIS’s pleasure my parents participated in, and enjoyed, the social diplomatic whirl of Iraq in the 1960s...Accord to the Alwiyah Club Members’ List, 1965, there were 49 diplomatic missions in Baghdad...The Alwiyah Club Members’ List of individual names reads, on the hand, like a register of Baghdad’s high society – its most prominent Christian, Jewish and Muslim families.” [pg. 64]
Mr. Lawrence de Souza moved to London prior to the 1968 revolution in Iraq and continued to serve as an SIS operative. The book indicates the British knew the date on which the coup was to take place.
“I believe my father knew the revolution was on its way, and was aware of the date it was scheduled. This allowed him to delay his departure to win the oil tender, with enough time left over to leave safely with my mother in June 1968.” [pg.88]
The book mentions the involvement of an MI6 diplomat, Norman Darbyshire’s involvement in the downfall of Iran’s Prime Minister in 1953.
“His career, especially his involvement in the downfall of Iran’s Prime Minister Mossadeq in 1953, may be considered controversial today. (See: Dorril, S. (2000) MI6:Fifty years of Special Operations. Fourth Estate: London.)” [pg. 95]
London – a centre for espionage
After moving to London and establishing a business there Mr. de Souza continued his intelligence activities especially amongst prominent Arabs.
Miss de Souza refers to the relationship between MI6, freemasons, politicians, big business and British peers.
“Through high-ranking SIS freemasons, he was introduced to two British businessmen, on various Chambers of Commerce circuits, one of whom had been an MP. Both had knighthoods. SIS suggested that it would be beneficial to my father’s new business if, because of their knighthoods, he put their names on his letterheads. A fee would be charged.”
“I did not know then, this was how British business worked. Most of my other friends from the Middle East who also set up companies always included those with knighthoods” [pg. 99]
“Masonic functions always contained a sprinkling of Arab guests – ‘The Arabs have long been comfortable with freemasonry,’ he said. My father told how one occasion the chairman of Rolls Royce ‘hilariously mistook me for the ambassador of an important Arab country. I only figured it out when he called me ‘Your Excellency’ not once, but three times.” [pg. 99-100]
She indicates the power of the intelligence services over the media: “Mr Sinclair was particularly kind when one of my father’s relatives – a businessman and professional gambler – went through a troubled period. In order to protect my father from publicity, inevitable in the fall-out, Sinclair ensured that there was a blanket ban in the media.” [pg. 101]
She reveals that the head of MI6 in 1994 had served time in Beirut and was an expert on the various Palestinian factions: “SIS diplomat Sir David Spedding, who was to become SIS Chief in 1994, was the second secretary at the SIS Beirut Station at the time, ‘Where he cut his teeth collecting intelligence on the various Palestinian factions which were to become his main area of expertise...’ He was subsequently ‘outed’ as a member of SIS by Kim Philby – a British agent who defected to the Soviets in 1963 – in Moscow.’” [pg. 108]
Mr de Souza’s SIS case worker recommended him to read the Times and the Telegraph as the government line could be obtained from them. “This disappointed ‘Geoffrey Kingsmill’, who believed that my father ought to read The Times and The Daily Telegraph because, he explained, ‘You can get the line from them.’” [pg. 113]
As has been long thought by political analysts the intelligence services are supporters of the Conservative party, traditionally the true rulers of Britain.
“SIS colleagues placed my parents under so much pressure to vote Conservative.” [pg. 113]
However there is an acknowledgement of the factionalism that exists within the British establishment amongst elected government, the Foreign Office and the intelligence services.
“On one occasion in 1971, my father was incensed by the Conservative government’ s attitude towards the Middle East. ‘They are complete imbeciles’, he said, continuing, ‘Our motives are pure. We are doing what is best for the country and Iraq. The government try to clip our wings, and hand our work on a plate to American oil giants, because they distrust so-called SIS ‘romanticism’ for the Arabs. What they actually mean is that SIS refuses to over-sentimentalise the State of Israel. So who are the real patriots? SIS or government?” [pg.120]
She indicates that MI6 officers had a high opinion of Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad.
“However, he rated Mossad highly and commented admiringly, ‘They recruit from the prostitute to the bishop. When it comes to recruitment, the Israeli’s are the best.” [pg.121]
In a statement that rings true until today one SIS’s commented on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “One of my father’s SIS colleagues believed: ‘The Israeli’s will try to prolong the Palestinian problem for as long as they are able. Without the Palestinians as a problem, Israel is of no consequence to the West.’”[pg. 121]
From London Lawrence recruited sources from amongst the elite of the Arab world.
“My father was responsible for talent-spotting, recruiting, developing and running some of SIS’s most senior Arab and Kurdish sources, 1968-78. Those unable to deliver intelligence to a required standard were passed by SIS to the CIA...For the most part they were commercial, politicised and educated. My father always met his sources outside their own countries, or other Arab countries, where there was less chance of their meetings being noticed.”[pg. 123]
Lawrence gives an insight to the nature of these informants.
“They are lusty people, red-hot males chasing blondes, and cannot think straight unless they have had sex. In these circumstances, I see no reason why we should not provide such a man with professional women.”[pg. 118]
On behalf of MI6 Lawrence travelled widely, “He visited Abu Dhabi, Athens, Beirut, Brussels, Cairo, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Madrid, Oslo, Paris, Rome, Stockholm, Tripoli and Vienna, sometimes regularly, on behalf of SIS.” [pg. 138]
He joined various social clubs in London and circulated amongst the Arab diplomatic and elite community. “He joined the Directors, Hurlingham, Playboy, Saddle room, RAC and Roehampton clubs, as well as CAABU (Committee for Anglo-Arab Understanding)” [pg.141]
“My father met his SIS colleagues in cars, tube and railway platforms...He met other SIS colleagues in offices and private apartments in London, mostly in Victoria...” [pg. 146]
Students who come to study at British military academies from abroad are an obvious target for developing relationships between them and the British. Miss De Souza says:
“My father also praised the military academies Mons and Sandhurst, on the basis that ‘these train officers from all over the world. This is a wonderful investment for Britain’s future because genuine friendships are made.’ He thought it ‘a very bad move’ when Mons, which offered a six-month training course for officers was closed down: ‘men from overseas do not always have the time to study at Sandhurst for a couple of years’.” [pg. 153]
“My father also hosted overseas military delegations...” [pg. 157]
She confirms that MI6 recruit from the respected British Universities.
“Forte gave me detailed information as to why ‘our spies have moved to Durham University’, adding that ‘the Kurds have gone to St Johns, Oxford’ – explaining how SIS had moved its spy school away from SOAS.” [pg. 170]
“...after I arrived at SOAS, SIS had asked me, through my father, to recommend four fellow students who would make ‘good intelligence officers.” [pg. 171]
She confirms that they also keep files on students that join particular societies.
“The most damaging information Forte mentioned were the student files compiled by Special Branch. I had no idea such things existed. He no doubt meant well but cautioned, ‘We have a record on every single student signing up to dubious societies at London University. We hope you are careful about your friends.’” [pg.173]
The book confirms Britain’s role in removing Iran’s elected Prime Minister Dr Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953 and even specifies the role of Professor Ann (Nancy) Lambton of London’s SOAS as having a role in his downfall. [pg. 172]
It also confirms the British backing of the Shah in Iran.
“Forte next claimed, “It was our duty to assist the Shah of Persia in control of his people.” [pg.172]
Britain’s backing of Saddam Hussein is also referred to.
“One evening in 1975, my father came home shattered, telling us ‘SIS is happy with Saddam Hussein. HMG wants to encourage him.’ One of the results of this change was that HMG ditched the Iraqi Kurds, on the basis that ‘The Crown cannot sacrifice billions of pounds’ worth of trade with Iraq for Kurds.’ At the time , Saddam Hussein was powerful in the Iraqi government but not yet president.” [pg.195]
HMG stands for Her Majesties Government.
A joint intelligence department was setup referred to in the book as ‘No Names’.
“These were SIS officers who staffed a s joint SIS-MI5-Special branch section responsible for tracking Middle Eastern terrorists. My family called them the ‘No Names’ because they had aliases.” [pg. 198]
Ms Souza describes the incompetency of these ‘No Names’ run by ‘Alexis Forte’ and the decline in the quality of British intelligence in some detail.
Her father said, “I could not believe SIS’s Middle Eastern expertise had come to this. After all my year of service with SIS, and our once-superb Middle Eastern capabilities, it now boiled down to Alexis and vicious puppies learning at his feet. Like him, they despised anyone who was not a white man.’” [pg.198]
“He blamed HMG for prolonging the Iraq-Iran War for cynical reasons; and believed that British television coverage of the war was censored.” [pg. 234]
Following the request of Lawrence de Souza to resign from MI6 she describes a series of intimidation tactics and harassment employed by them. When we consider what they are capable of doing to their own officers one dreads to think what they can do to ordinary civilians who don’t comply with their demands.
“That evening came a whole series of nuisance calls.” [pg.205]
“The harassment that my father endured, which started in the mid-1970s as an attempt to stop him resigning went on, in bursts, until he dies in 1986. For example, one day he went out for a walk with my mother. Returning home, he found a poster of a mad dog on his desk with the caption, ‘Keep rabies out of Britain’. He was shattered. Other problems were constant. Our telephone echoed non-stop, and there were all sorts of clicks and buzzing. Sometimes snippets of conversation referring to HMG could be heard. Every time my father complained, something else happened – the heavily weighted birdcage in his high-walled garden was transported from one end to the next; a stranger, having made it known that he had gained entry into our house, left, relocking the front door with his own key. On the first floor landing, we found a carefully arranged display of hard-core pornography. ” [pg. 206]
“Soon after came the accusation that my father had harassed a SIS secretary. ‘I was waiting for this one,’ commented my mother. The young woman was never produced...” [pg. 212]
“Soon our lives were turned upside down again by long bouts of massive harassment. At first it was subtle. For example, during a long pension discussion, which took place in my father’s garden, his SIS colleague inserted the phrase, ‘The balloon might go up at any minute’, inconsequentially three times. Shortly before departure, the civil servant pointed to a tree at the side of the house and asked, with apparent innocence, ‘What is that?’ Tied to the top branch was an aluminium balloon (long before these were widely available) that required a workman to retrieve. The workman later reported that it had been secured with correctly fastened nautical knots. It could not be seen unless the civil servant spotting it had known it was there already. Other harassment, as well as sinister telephone calls – ‘You are all on your own now’ – continued for years.” [pg. 226-227]
After graduation Corinne Souza began working as a parliamentary consultant and parliamentary lobbyist, she was approached by the intelligence services who attempted to intimidate her into working for them. She describes the harassment that she and her family faced during this period.
“The man who came up to me was much younger than the first man I had encountered...He made a specific request for information about the Labour MP’s participating in the trip to the plant and those from the shop floor they were to meet on the visit.” [pg. 252]
“With the exception of the first two approaches, every subsequent one was unpleasant, not least because it was usually signalled in advance by intimidation of my father. The years that followed were little more than a record of harassment, strange telephone calls and ringing doorbells.” [pg. 252]
She describes how this affected her father’s mental health, he became paranoid and started to believe that his daughter was working for the intelligence services against him.
“In due course, mildness gave way to pressure. The impact on my father was catastrophic, and his mental health became increasingly fragile.” [pg. 253]
Despite this the harassment continued.
“When I refused to help, they referred to my mixed-race parentage – ‘You’re not English, are you?’ – as if my mixed race was the cause of what they perceived to be the problem. Soon came the first mention of my British passport and how it had been obtained, and the realisation that my nationality was an issue.” [pg. 254]
“Next, I was asked to ‘report’ on Labour and ‘Wet’ Conservative APMIG members...” [pg.255]
“The No Names’ demands grew increasingly nasty...The final defining moment came when my confused and sick father was humiliated in front of me and I was forced to write a specific parliamentary report. Had I not written the report, he would have been stripped of his pension because ‘he did not exist’. It was the only time I agreed to co-operate. [pg. 258]
“My father died the following year, in October 1986, leaving – through no fault of his own – my mother and I in a state of espionage ‘intestacy’ and all the chaos this implied.” [pg. 261]
After gaining assistance of a senior Conservative politician Ms De Souza was able to gain acknowledgement of her fathers work for SIS and a qualified apology.
“As a result of Lord Colnbrook’s intervention, I received a qualified apology, via a letter from Downing Street dated 13 April 1994.” [pg. 270]
She has included scanned images of this letter and one from the Foreign Office on behalf of SIS acknowledging that her father was indeed an MI6 agent.
The intimidation tactics continued.
“A minor bout of harassment followed, including entry into my house and the placing of a stranger’s credit card Switch receipt from an IKEA store in my handbag. This was drawn on the same day that I was having lunch in France, and found the same night, on my return...Soon after, came interference with my telephone and mail.” [pg. 274]
She concludes the book with an open letter to the Director General of SIS at the time of publication. She has also included an interesting anecdote regarding that occurred after its publication.
“During the summer of 2003, the hardback edition of Baghdad Spy was ‘stolen/removed’ from a public library located in an area where several active/retired members of the intelligence services live. I am grateful to those who complained, and to the local press which ran the story of the ‘theft’ in their newspapers. As a result, the book is back on the shelf!” [pg. 294]
As well as giving her personal account the book is well referenced, she has referred to a variety of sources including other reputed works by ex-intelligence operatives such as ‘At Risk’ and ‘Open Secret’ both written by the former Director General of MI5 Dame Stella Rimington and ‘The Big Breach’ by ex-MI6 spy Richard Tomlinson. She has also referred to other in depth works such as ‘Inside British Intelligence: 100 years of MI5 and MI6’ by Thomas Gordon.
Overall it is a well written useful memoir of the shady world of espionage, although at times it is somewhat emotive due to the negative encounters of the author with the intelligence services however, her detailed recollections, referencing and the inclusion of documentary proof of her father’s involvement in the British Secret Intelligence Service adds to its credibility.