A former head of MI6 says that, though the White House commands our attention, Europe is the greater worryby Jay Elwes / April 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Richard Dearlove frowned at the coffee pot on the table before him, as he pondered the phenomenon of Donald Trump. “I think he’s very strongly nationalist,” he said, pouring himself a small cup. The room, at a discreet location in central London, was large and empty of other people, its walls lined with 19th-century portraits. Is Trump the start of something worrying, I asked. “I think it depends on how fundamental this shift in politics in the US and other countries is,” he replied, speaking slowly. “I think the jury’s out on how far it is going to go.”
Between 1999 and 2004, Dearlove was head of the Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, a tenure that included the bruising experience of the Iraq war, the drama of 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan. He joined the service in 1966 and in his time he ran MI6’s Washington station, the most significant posting in British intelligence and was also overall Director of Operations.
So he’s seen it all before. But the allegations that members of Trump’s staff had illegal contact with the Russian government during the election campaign are “unprecedented,” said Dearlove. As for the president’s personal position, he said, “What lingers for Trump may be what deals—on what terms—he did after the financial crisis of 2008 to borrow Russian money when others in the west apparently would not lend to him.” I also asked Dearlove about Trump’s suggestion that the US National Security Agency (NSA) or British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) had bugged Trump Tower on the instructions of Barack Obama. This allegation was flatly rejected by both organisations and also by James Comey, Director of the FBI, who told Congress in a March hearing that “we have no information to support” Trump’s claim. “This is simply deeply embarrassing,” said Dearlove, “for Trump and the administration, that is. The only possible explanation is that Trump started tweeting without understanding how the NSA-GCHQ relationship actually works.”
But more than this display of ignorance by the White House, Dearlove is troubled by the changing face of European politics. The anxiety is striking coming from him, because last year—in the pages of Prospect—Dearlove set out his view that Brexit would not in itself harm the UK’s security or its intelligence work. Wider developments on the continent, however, are another matter. “For me, the intriguing question is what’s going to happen in the French and the German elections,” he said. “I don’t think at the moment [Marine] Le Pen will win the French presidency. But let’s say she comes close to winning—whoever beats her is going to have to probably move to the right,” including “a more activist nationalist foreign policy.”