No evidence Corbyn was a communist spy, say intelligence experts

Researchers say archives suggest claims made against Labour leader are unfounded

Communist-era files from the intelligence agency of Czechoslovakia provide no evidence that Jeremy Corbyn was ever a spy or agent of influence, experts and academic researchers who have reviewed the papers said on Tuesday.

Radek Schovánek, an analyst with the defence ministry of the Czech Republic – which emerged, along with Slovakia, from the peaceful breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993 – has spent 25 years researching documents filed by the now-defunct spy service. He told the Guardian the suspicions against Corbyn were unfounded, and the claims of Ján Sarkocy, a former intelligence officer expelled from Britain in 1989, to have signed the Labour leader up were false.

Schovánek also poured scorn on Sarkocy’s boast that he used 10 to 15 other Labour politicians in the 1980s as sources, including the current shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, and Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London.

Corbyn, speaking at a conference on Tuesday, dismissed as nonsense the allegation he had passed on information to Czechoslovakia during the cold war.

The story originated with The Sun, which on Thursday splashed with “Corbyn and the Commie Spy”. The Telegraph, the Daily Mail and Times have since kept the ball rolling.

In a video released on Tuesday evening, Corbyn went on the attack, saying the claims were “lies and smears”.

Jan Dymic

Real name Ján Sarkocy. Aged 64, he lives near Bratislava and was the third secretary of the Czechoslovak foreign ministry, in charge of the “peace movement.” He initially made the claim to have met with Corbyn in Parliament around six months ago. But in more recent claims, he suggests Corbyn was on the Czech secret service payroll - as were a number of other MPs.

Jeremy Corbyn

The Labour leader was prominent in various peace groups in the 1980s and since, including the Stop The War Coalition. The Czechoslavakian spy, Jan Sarkocy, at the time he met Corbyn, was responsible for peace movements, which may have been what drew him to the Labour MP in the first place. A few Labour MPs were openly supportive of the Soviet bloc but Corbyn was not one of them, blaming the Soviet Union as much as the US for conflicts around the world.

John McDonnell

The shadow chancellor, 66, has also found himself a target of Sarkocy’s allegations, which he denies. Like Corbyn, he was not one of the Labour figures at the time who championed the Soviet Union. His spokesman said: “John never met any Czechoslovak or Soviet agent nor visited the Soviet or Russian embassy.”

Ken Livingstone

Now aged 72, the Labour leader of the GLC in the 1980s is accused of having Czechoslovak contacts. Jan Sarkocy, the spy who met Corbyn, has alleged that Livingstone dropped into the Czechoslovak embassy in London and “drank whisky” there. Livingstone has poured scorn on the claim. He has described Sarkocy as a “Czech nutter” and has said that his preferred drink is brandy, not whisky.

“In the last few days, The Sun, The Mail, The Telegraph and The Express have all gone a little bit James Bond.

“They’ve found a former Czechoslovakian spy whose claims are increasingly wild and entirely false,” he said.

Sarkocy met with Corbyn in the 1980s in the House of Commons. In recent days, Sarkocy has claimed Corbyn was a paid informant of the StB, the Czechoslovakian security service. He also alleges other senior Labour figures were paid between £1,000 and £15,000 for information.

Schovánek said Sarkocy’s assertions were at odds with the security files, which represented the definitive record on agents and contacts, and made no reference to Corbyn as a recruited agent, or to McDonnell or Livingstone.

Asked if he was calling the ex-intelligence officer, now living near the Slovakian capital Bratislava, a liar, Schovánek said: “When you compare the documents which he had written and signed himself with what he is saying today, based on that he is a liar. He signed a list of documents in the UK which said Corbyn was an intelligence contact, not an agent.”

The term “intelligence contact” in reality meant little, Schovánek said. Czechoslovakian intelligence officers could have many such contacts, who provided little, if any information.

Schovánek, 54, who secretly smuggled banned books from the west into Czechoslovakia during the cold war, said he felt compelled to speak out on Corbyn’s behalf, despite strongly disagreeing with the Labour leader’s leftwing politics. “I personally don’t like Corbyn. I’m Roman Catholic and conservative, but I think we have to defend people against a lie,” he said.

Daniela Richterová, a politics and international studies researcher at the University of Warwick, said the files showed the Labour leader was never a “witting source”. “We know how the process of arranging a collaboration works,” she said. There was “no evidence” Corbyn was recruited during four meetings with Sarcozy, she added.

Richterová said foreign agents working for the StB received their own dedicated file. The material on Corbyn, by contrast, was a “sub-file”. It had a different classification from that of a “knowing collaborator”.

For recruited agents, Prague’s intelligence services would include how a contact was recruited, handled and developed as a spy. None of this is described in the Corbyn records. The archive indicates that when meeting Corbyn, Sarkocy – who posed as a diplomat – was instructed “not to raise suspicion” and to keep his true identity secret.

Corbyn first appeared in state security records in August 1977, after he toured Czechoslovakia on a motorbike holiday. Fellow MP Diane Abbott, who accompanied him on a similar holiday to East Germany, was not with him on that trip.

Labour party members active in the 1980s who knew Corbyn at the time said his political leanings were not towards the Soviet Union.

This is backed up by Darren G Lilleker, associate professor at Bournemouth University and author of the 2004 book Against The Cold War: The History and Political Traditions of Pro-Sovietism in the British Labour Party, 1945-1989.

Lilleker said Corbyn was not among those Labour MPs who were sympathetic to the Soviet Union. “He was against both sides, the US and the Soviet Union, seeing them both as a danger to world peace.”

Corbyn was only one of four MPs to sign a parliamentary early day motion in December 1989 congratulating striking workers in Czechoslovakia “against the corruption and mismanagement of the Stalinist bureaucracy”.

Labour activists also remember Corbyn’s sympathies as lying with dissident movements, partly through his involvement in peace movements.

Jan Kavan, former Czech foreign minister and deputy prime minister, who had been a student leader during the Prague Spring and leading dissident in exile in the UK from 1969 to 1989 , regards Corbyn as a friend, and the two spoke at length when the Labour leader visited Prague in December 2016 to address European socialists.

Kavan said of the allegations: “You have to take it not just with a pinch of salt, but a wagonload of salt.” He added: “It is a classic smear campaign. It is clearly designed to weaken Jeremy Corbyn’s position.”

Richterová said the Corbyn records were in contrast to the files on British MPs from an earlier generation, whom Czechoslovakian intelligence actually recruited. In the 1950s and 1960s, the StB succeeded in co-opting two Labour MPs – John Stonehouse and William Owen – and one Tory MP, Raymond Mawby. The relationship lasted a decade, and in Owen’s case, for nearly 15 years.

All three MPs were fully recruited StB agents, with their file category marked up as “Agent” or “A”. Their files comprise thousands of pages of documents. These feature strategies for recruitment and development, minutes of meetings with agents, assessments of their performance, and tasking plans, Richterová said, plus details of communications and counter-surveillance.

To begin with, Mawby and Owen believed they were passing information to Prague’s foreign affairs ministry. Gradually, however, they were made explicitly aware that they were indeed collaborating with communist intelligence, Richterová said. Prague paid Owen about £5,000. His nickname inside the StB was “Greedy Bastard”.

Running high-profile British agents was a complicated and often frustrating endeavour, she added. Stonehouse turned out to be evasive and overly cautious, Owen not well-suited to be a spy, and Mawby notoriously unreliable. Remarkably, the files reveal that MI5 were aware of Stonehouse and Mawby’s repeated contacts with Czechoslovakian “diplomats”.

Richard Gott, then literary editor of the Guardian, resigned from the paper in 1994 after allegations that he was among “agents of influence” recruited by the KGB. He denied the accusations, though admitting he failed to inform editors of trips to Austria, Greece and Cyprus paid for by the Soviet Union. He described his resignation as “a debt of honour to my paper, not an admission of guilt”.

Meanwhile, Conservative MPs have called on Corbyn to release his Stasi file, compiled by the east German secret police. The Stasi Records Agency in Germany on Tuesday said they had found no documents on Corbyn. This included all files that can’t be released publicly for privacy protection reasons, case worker Matthias Dziomba said.

•This article was changed on February 21 to correct Matthias Dziomba’s job title from spokesman to case worker.


Robert Tait in Prague, Luke Harding, Ewen MacAskill and Ben Quinn

The GuardianTramp

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