Secret archives and incinerated truths

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2017), Platform, Volume 25

‘If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself’
—George Orwell, 1984.

By Angus Mitchell

This observation in Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece touches on how a critical dynamic of state control requires a shutting out of secrecy entirely as a recognisable function of authority. Perhaps this is the only way in which we are able to live with the crimes of the imperial past and present. From an alternative perspective, this comment challenges the processes of remembrance and historical recovery. Every researcher worth his salt has felt the surge of frustration when documents that should be there are not. Narratives become inexplicably truncated. The line goes silent.

I remember working some years ago through British Foreign Office files to do with the early administration on the Oil Rivers Protectorate and being struck by repeated archival culs-de-sac. The archivist at the National Archives (UK) said that some files to do with ‘early Nigeria’ were still ‘retained’ and suggested that I contact the Foreign Office directly. I did so, and received some curt and unhelpful response that effectively warned me off. Why, I wondered, were documents to do with the British presence in West Africa in the 1890s still considered sensitive? With the passing of the years, my suspicions regarding the management of official archives have only deepened.

I was unprepared, however, for how those suspicions about that unwritten relationship between state power, secrecy and history would be confirmed by a reading of Ian Cobain’s The history thieves: secrets, lies and the shaping of a modern nation (2016). Cobain frames the principal revelations in his book around a general discussion on the expanding culture of secrecy—‘a very British disease’. As he maps the contours of the secret state through the Official Secrets Act and its subsequent amendments, he provides valuable insight into how the control of information has evolved through the Public Records Act (1958), the Data Protection Act (1998) and the Justice and Security Act (2013) into an ever-deeper black hole of official oblivion.

With the revolution in technology, there has been a fundamental alteration in how secret states operate. The old-fashioned hush-hush approach, where knowledge was exchanged on a ‘need to know’ basis, has been rendered obsolete by recognition that information only becomes meaningful if it is shared and algorithmically analysed. In that paradigmatic shift, however, the ship of secrecy has started to leak profusely. Over the last decade, security services have been faced by a new form of informational insurgency mounted by lone-wolf whistle-blowers. Individuals either with an axe to grind or faced by ethical dilemmas owing to their special access to secret information have been driven to expose the intestines of state control: WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Barrett Brown are the celebrated international examples.

Above: Barrett Brown—recently released after a four-year prison sentence, the journalist, an outspoken critic of the expanding world of intelligence, recently suggested in an interview with Democracy Now that ‘hactivism’ is the only effective way of monitoring the Dark State. (The Daily Dot, 11 December 2015)

Historians are gradually coming around to realising the implications of this inner sanctum of secret archives contoured by purposeful silences and buried truths. The official version has been challenged by critical scrutiny of the refined practices of historical management. Now we find ourselves in an age of alternative facts and post-truth politics, but the path that led us here is not hard to trace.

According to Cobain, as Britain faced up to the end-game of empire, the military and colonial retreat required a frenzied reconfiguration of papers. Much documentation of a potentially embarrassing nature was incinerated; other material was retained and buried away in top-secret locations where it remained free of any 30-year rule.
From the 1950s through to the early ’70s, a policy named Operation Legacy was activated. As the winds of change blew through Whitehall, tens of thousands of files were secretly removed and incalculable amounts of potentially revealing information destroyed. Colonial officials were ordered to generate parallel registries: one containing files that were to be handed over at independence, and a second that would be eviscerated or returned to a secret location near London.

Not until 2001, when a group of personal injury lawyers were investigating the claims of victims of the Mau Mau insurgency during Britain’s colonial retreat from Kenya, were suspicions raised. The ‘lurid tales of colonial blood-lust’ did not tally with the official narrative as recorded in the National Archives. When the US historian Caroline Elkins published Imperial reckoning, her account (based on oral testimony) of the barbarity of British law in Kenya, the inadequacy and lacunae in the public record were exposed. As lawyers began to delve deeper, the official narrative strayed ever further from the victims’ testimonies, and the government was finally forced to admit that there was another archival dimension altogether where a deeper and more unpalatable truth might be found.

Above: Suspected members of the Mau Mau are questioned by the British in 1953. Caroline Elkins’s Imperial reckoning (2005) exposed the inadequacy and lacunae in the public record of Britain’s counter-insurgency campaign. (AP Photo)

Hanslope Park, ten miles north of Bletchley Park and used during the Second World War for MI6’s Radio Security Service, had been converted into a safe house for a significant tranche of this subterfuge stream of official records. It became known as the ‘migrated archive’.

Over the last few years, as investigative historians excavated this missing dimension of documentation, it was found to relate not just to Kenya but also to most of Britain’s colonial hot spots, Ireland included.

As the quarrying continues, a new archival language is evolving. Terms like ‘Destruction Certificates’, ‘Legacy Files’ and a policy of ‘disavowal’ are part of the new lexicon. Within the Foreign Office, this undisclosed memory bank of the secret state is referred to as ‘Special Collections’. Although the principal period covered is post-1945, there are records reaching back to the seventeenth century. It is now estimated to be in excess of a million files.

Inevitably, Ireland’s long war with Britain from the late nineteenth century shadows this labyrinth. Within weeks of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, documents were destroyed at Gough Barracks—many ending up beneath an old landfill site in north Belfast. The Ministry of Defence maintains two warehouses full of files relevant to the Troubles, but the Historical Enquiries Team, the police unit set up in 2005 to re-examine unsolved paramilitary murders, was kept in the dark about any such vault of non-disclosure. Even those asked to investigate the secret state were kept in the dark.

The massive body of evidence produced by the Stevens enquiry was estimated to weigh around 100 tonnes. Some will remember how efforts were made to burn down the building where the investigation was headquartered while it was ongoing. Once the enquiry was at an end, the papers were loaded into Ford transit vans and then driven onto a Hercules transport plane and taken off to a secure location in England. Much of the archive was later returned and is now held in Seapark, a high-security police facility at Carrickfergus. The PSNI, we are informed, have a ‘Legacy Support Unit’, where retired Special Branch detectives spend their days not weeding herbaceous borders but picking through police files and banishing deep-state secrets into the memory hole. Cobain is not overstating the case when he asserts that ‘MI5 fully grasps the importance of the politics of archives’.

Where these latest revelations leave the discipline of history is unclear. Intelligence history is now an essential supplement to the study of the modern world, yet few historians challenge the right of the state to use either secrecy or deception for its own ends. Secrecy, as another historian of Britain’s covert state, Peter Hennessy, has perceptively commented, ‘is now so much part of the British landscape that its curtailment, not its continuity, would be aberrational’.

Britain is not the only imperial power with a nefarious secret archive to confront. The implications for Ireland, however, and for other post-colonial states are no less challenging. Certainly, both professional practitioners of history and their next generation of students will need to design new methodologies to interrogate a dimension of the past that was never intended for independent scrutiny.

Angus Mitchell lectures in history at the Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick.

I. Cobain, The history thieves: secrets, lies and the shaping of a modern nation (London, 2016).


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