Paddy Ashdown raised fears in 1984 about clandestine approaches made by US agents but allegations were dismissed
Margaret Thatcher told Paddy Ashdown there was no need for an inquiry and no evidence of improper activity. Photograph: Barbra Walton/Associated Press
Margaret Thatcher was warned that the CIA did not always give sufficient advance notice when it carried out operations in Britain, a secret file released on Friday shows.
Paddy Ashdown, a Liberal MP, complained to Thatcher about the US intelligence organisation’s activities in the UK in November 1984.
Ashdown was worried about clandestine approaches made by US agents to British computer firms in this country and abroad to prevent eastern bloc countries obtaining western computer secrets by stealth.
“My subsequent investigations have led me to conclude that the CIA got the information on the UK companies in the course of an operation which, it seems, is still continuing,” he told Thatcher.
The prime minister sent back a letter dismissing his allegations. “There is no evidence of improper activity by the CIA or that the law has been broken,” she wrote. “As you are aware, there is close co-operation between the British and American authorities on the enforcement of multilateraly agreed exports controls, which is in the national interest.” She said there was no need for an inquiry, but would expect police to investigate if there were any evidence of the law being broken.
The files now make clear that this was not the whole picture. The Foreign Office subsequently asked MI5 to investigate Ashdown’s complaints. Their report back to Downing Street said: “The security service are as confident as they can can be that the CIA are not involved in activities in the UK as alleged by Mr Ashdown.
“There is an agreement between the British and American agencies that neither will undertake clandestine activies in the country of the other without specific agreement.”
But, the FCO note, continued: “The security service have told us that there was a small number of isolated cases in 1983 when the CIA approached British individuals with a view to seeking information about cases in which hostile intelligence services were involved in attempts to acquire illegally western technology, without adequate consultation in advance with the British authorities.
“These cases were brought to the attention of the CIA (and FBI) and the security service are satisfied that such cases are not recurring. They emphasise, however, that such incidents are not relevant to the allegations being made by Mr Ashdown which relate to pressure being put on British companies to divulge information about their trading activies.”
MI5, the FCO added, “do not believe that the CIA are involved in clandestine activities in this field and have no cause for complaint”. But just to be sure, the last letter in the file notes, the CIA had given a specific assurance that they were not involved in in the UK as Ashdown had suggested.
The documents do not make clear what the difference was between the small number of isolated cases identified in 1983 and Ashdown’s concerns.
theguardian.com, Friday 3 January 2014 00.01 GMT
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