Author: Ian Cobain Publisher: Portobello Books Reviewer: Stephen Keim
The subtitle of The History Thieves is Secrets, Lies and the Shaping of a Modern Nation. It is a history of the obscene lengths to which the British State has gone to ensure that the public is denied transparency concerning the actions of the government, both domestically and in its overseas operations. The History Thieves is also a history of the wrongdoing which the lack of transparency has managed to hide from the British public and from the work of historians.
The obsession for secrecy was able to be satisfied prior to the second half of the nineteenth century without need for legislative restriction because the number of public servants was limited; they came from a restricted range of backgrounds; and the system of patronage by which officers were employed meant that it was simply not the done thing to talk out of term.
However, as the need grew for a larger public service, officers were recruited from a larger range of backgrounds who were not bound by the class loyalty that had enforced secrecy in the past. The need for more formal controls led to the passing of the first Official Secrets Act in 1899 and even more restrictive legislation in 1911. Section 2 of the 1911 Official Secrets Act prohibited the unauthorized disclosure or receipt of any official information. Fittingly, the passing of the Act, in each case, was accompanied by misleading statements by the responsible ministers in the House of Commons and very little publicity. Nothing to see here, the public was assured.
The opening pages of the introduction to The History Thieves describes two British government intelligence officials arriving at the offices of the Guardian newspaper in London to oversee the destruction of several of the Guardian’s computers. The computers held thousands of documents which detailed how a British agency, Government Communications Headquarters, and its US counterpart, the National Security Agency, had conspired to, and largely succeeded, capture every digital communication that was being sent or received by anyone at any time.
This destruction was both pointless and illustrative of the deep logic that underlies the British government’s centuries-old thirst for secrecy. It was pointless because the officials and the government knew that the same information was held in other computers in the United States and could be published without reference to the Guardian. Nonetheless, the officials and the government knew that secrecy allowed governments to get away with things that would not be tolerated if they were conducted openly. And the officials and the government knew that no punitive action, however petty, was wasted in communicating the message that breaking down the walls that kept things secret would never be tolerated.
Cobain’s title, The History Thieves, makes the important point that government secrecy, not only, allows governments to do things that they would not dare to do openly but that it also prevents both professional historians and the public from constructing a full picture of the country’s history. Even where the wars and atrocities conducted by the British government, eventually, become known, often by chance, the revelation of such atrocities, years after the fact, falls far short of their being publicly known at the time the events took place. Even the careful documentation by books like The History Thieves or the coverage of the revelations in the mass media for a few days when the revelations occur fails to make such events, withheld for so long, enter the public mind and become part of the public’s consciousness. The image we have of a country’s past actions is carefully built up by repeated experience and frequent retelling by our parents, our friends, by ourselves and by countless reflections published in newspapers, books and visual media. Few such articles will focus on the British contribution to starting the Vietnam war or British officers, literally, holding Kenyan subjects’ feet to the flame. Many more will remember the much more favourable images of a young Queen’s grace in the years after her coronation or British support for and participation in the Nuremberg Trials, thereby, establishing new principles of international law, in each case, occupying a similar period of history.
There is also a paradox to the revelations contained in a book on what government secrecy attempted to hide from us. While the revelations astound us, there may always be more and worse matters which we have not yet discovered.
That said, The History Thieves has much astounding material to put before the reader. It is both a history of secrecy in the United Kingdom but, also, a history of shameful things that were withheld from the public but which have been since revealed. And it does set out examples of incidents where the full story has not been revealed: where many of the most important documents were systematically destroyed or remain in the vaults of intelligence agencies still too damaging to the country’s reputation to reveal.
Reading The History Thieves yields a totally different history of the UK in the period since the end of the Second World War to that passed off as the whole truth during the period to which the history relates.
I mention, briefly below, three aspects of that history which were deliberately withheld from the eyes of the public and which are narrated in the pages of The History Thieves. The examples reveal how effective the attempts to maintain secrecy were. They also reveal atrocities that could not have been committed if the public had been aware of what had happened.
Soon after the end of that war, still in 1945, the British armed forces started what became, eventually, the Vietnam War and which continued until the capture of Saigon on 30 April 1975. The British not only committed its own weary troops but re-armed forces of the Vichy France and Japan, who were not only erstwhile enemies but many of whom may have been war criminals for whom Australia was engaged in setting up courts to hear such allegations. To ensure that France did not lose its colonies in Indochina, the British government started a war against the nationalist forces of Vietnam, the Viet Minh.
The nature of the way in which the war was conducted may be judged from the orders given which included instructions to use the maximum force available to ensure wiping out any hostilities we may meet. If we use too much force, no harm is done. As Cobain observes, this displayed ruthless disregard for civilians.
From the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies, Britain fought a totally secret war in Oman against the mainly nomadic Jebelis people of the Dhofari Highlands in the south of Oman. Putatively, the UK was acting in support of the Sultan of Oman against his own subjects but, clearly, the war was to maintain the UK’s own interests including its access to valuable oil supplies and export markets. As part of their tactics in suppressing a rebellion, the British poisoned wells, torched villages, destroyed crops and shot livestock. They developed new torture techniques for use in interrogation which included the infliction of noise which became part of the interrogation techniques used later in Northern Ireland. Areas occupied by civilians were turned into free-fire zones. No journalist was allowed to visit Oman after 1962. No official ever mentioned the war in a way in which it could be reported. As Cobain observes, no wonder the British wanted to keep this war secret.
The discovery of systematic British atrocities in Kenya is, itself, a fascinating story which began with British lawyers engaged in acting for Kenyans who had suffered injuries from previously unexploded ordnance left over from the struggle against the Mau Mau insurgency prior to independence in December 1963.
But, when the lawyers spoke to their clients about encounters with unexploded bombs, they also heard repeated stories from elderly Kenyan citizens about well organised atrocities committed by British forces occurring on a previously unimagined scale. Amazingly, this information had remained secret from the British public until the lawyers started taking statements in 2001.
The stories told by the plaintiffs were lurid. Jane Muthoni Mara was 15 years old when two men held her down and a third raped her with a heated bottle. Paul Nizili said that, while he was in British captivity, a colonial official known as Luvai castrated him with a large pair of pliers. Wambagu Wa Nyingi had never joined the Mau Mau but was imprisoned for nine years. He recalled being knocked unconscious in an incident where nine prisoners were clubbed to death.
The story of attempts of British government lawyers and their clients to hide the truth from coming out during the litigation is almost as lurid. Every attempt was made to have the action dismissed on technical grounds such as an argument that the UK could not be responsible for what the Empire did in Kenya because Kenya is now a different country.
Affidavits were sworn arguing that every document had been handed over. It was only when the few documents that had been provided were shown by expert historian witnesses to reveal the existence of large numbers of other documents did the government begin to come clean.
Eventually, the action was settled favourably to the elderly Kenyan plaintiffs but disclosure of the files led to a hunt for other hidden files concerning other parts of the Empire and has revealed further systemic suppression of the truth about British actions in its colonial domains.
The History Thieves is a fascinating read. More importantly, it is a story that needs to be told and remembered.