Twenty-five years after Turkey invaded Cyprus, James Callaghan admits there were secret US spy bases on the island. But, asks Brendan O'Malley, did Washington turn a blind eye to the invasion to protect them?
Cock-up or conspiracy? Many Cypriots look with envy on the way the West has saved East Timor from Indonesian militias and reversed the exodus of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. It is 25 years since the Greek military dictators in Athens staged a coup in Cyprus, ousting its Greek-Cypriot leader, Archbishop Makarios, and Turkey retaliated by seizing more than a third of the island in a two-phase invasion.
Greek Cypriots have long believed the Americans were to blame for failing to prevent the bloody events of 1974, which left the island "ethnically cleansed" long before the phrase was conjured up.
In Washington congressmen demanded to know why their country, as the main supplier of arms to Greece and Turkey, both Nato partners, was allowing one country to usurp democracy in a friendly state and the other to occupy a slice of its territory, bringing both to the brink of war. In London MPs cross-examined foreign secretary James Callaghan on why Britain, as a guarantor of Cyprus's independence, with two military bases, numerous spying facilities and thousands of troops on the island, took no military action to prevent the crisis. But no one could cut through the shroud of secrecy that descended on the subject. MPs concluded: "The full truth will never be known unless, and until, all official papers of the period can be seen."
I began investigating the story behind the Cyprus crisis after Lord Callaghan privately admitted that Britain sent a task force to Cyprus in the hope of taking joint military action with the United States to deter a Turkish invasion. "It was the most frightening moment of my career," he said. "We nearly went to war with Turkey. But the Americans stopped us." Drawing on interviews with key players and hundreds of State Department, CIA, Foreign Office and British defence papers, I discovered crucial evidence that suggests that Turkey's invasion of Cyprus in 1974 was no failure of American foreign policy but the realisation of a long-held plan to divide the island - to save top-secret defence and spying facilities from a potential communist take-over.
Although Callaghan has in the past shunned interviews about Cyprus, last month he relented. In his Sussex farm, he handed me a piece of House of Lords notepaper. On it was a hand-written quote from A. J. P. Taylor's Who Burned the Reichstag? "Events happen by chance and men mould them into a pattern. That is the way of history."
"International plot?" he asks. "I dispute your conclusion." He rattled off several criticisms. If the Americans wanted to divide the island in 1974, why did they lead a peace initiative to put it back together in 1978? How could such a plot have been executed at the height of the Watergate denouement when Nixon's energies and the White House's communications channels were consumed with handling the presidency's collapse? There were times when even he could not contact Henry Kissinger, US secretary of state, directly because the lines were clogged up. "I give you the challenge that Kissinger gave you. Where's the evidence of the plot?" Buried away in State Department papers I and my co-writer Ian Craig found records of plans the Americans made in 1964 to allow the Turks to invade a triangle of northern Cyprus. Senior US officials also proposed forcing Greece and Turkey to split the island between them along lines eerily similar to events in 1974. At the time there had been fierce fighting between the Greek Cypriots, who made up 80 per cent of the population, and the Turkish Cypriots. Acting US secretary of state George Ball told a British commander who secured a plan to return people from both sides to their mixed villages under UN guard: "You've got it wrong, son. There's only one solution to this island, and that's partition." The partition plans were shelved because the Americans were being sucked ever deeper into the war against communism in Vietnam. But the sentiment behind them remained.
In 1969 Ball said of Makarios: "That son of a bitch will have to be killed before anything happens in Cyprus." Over the next few years the archbishop, who increasingly relied on the support of the island's popular communist movement and flirted with Moscow, suffered a spate of assassination attempts, by rebels allegedly funded by the CIA via the military junta in Athens. By 1974 the tension between the junta's new leader, Brigadier Ioannides, and Makarios was spiralling out of control.
Into this unstable mix add a new Labour government in Britain. It came to power in March 1974 determined to slash defence spending at a time when the Cyprus spying bases had become critically important.
"We took a decision to cut down on defence and closing one or two of the major bases on Cyprus was a strong runner," Callaghan says, adding that US military and "high-level" State Department officials repeatedly asked for the intelligence bases to be saved. Under the terms of an earlier agreement, if Britain had pulled out of Cyprus, America could not have taken over the running of sovereign bases and separate spying sites inside Cypriot territory. Cyprus had "extreme value" as a "centre for electronic surveillance of the Soviet Union's nuclear activities, the cold war was hotting up and there were new Soviet missile test facilities being developed near the Caspian Sea, which we were able to look over. So the Americans didn't want us to go." Cyprus's key role in monitoring Soviet nuclear missile tests has never been admitted by the British or Americans before.
By 1974 the nuclear arms race had reached a critical stage. The Soviets overtook the Americans in the numbers of intercontinental missiles they held. If Britain pulled out of Cyprus, vital facilities would be lost for spying on long and medium-range missile tests at Kapustin Yar and Tyruratam, as well as key spy stations for eavesdropping on the Middle East.
Callaghan also confirmed that when Wilson sent the British task force, led by assault carrier Hermes, to Cyprus on July 16, the day after the coup and four days before the invasion, the Labour government believed that "if the American Sixth Fleet and elements of the British Navy had put themselves between the Turkish mainland and Cyprus, the Turks could have decided to back off". But, Callaghan believed, the Americans were in no mood to take such action and he thought it would be risking a "second Suez" to go in without them.
Even defending the bases would have been fraught with difficulty, he said. On one occasion the Turkish prime minister threatened to bomb British and Canadian troops holding Nicosia airport; on another Turkish tanks lined up at the perimeter of a British base and fired shells into it but were talked out of further action. "We would have had great problems defending the bases," Callaghan says. "We would have been totally exposed and it would have been humiliation for us again. Suez was ingrained in our hearts."
With Britain impotent, leverage rested with the United States. Kissinger thwarted Callaghan's attempts to muster urgent international pressure on the junta to withdraw its officers from Cyprus and end the coup. He also slapped down attempts by Callaghan to threaten military force against Turkey to avert the invasion.
"I clearly remember when he sent (assistant secretary of state) Hartman to see me. Hartman was usually very friendly, we had an easy relationship. But this time he was so cold - under instruction from Kissinger - because he thought we might take action."
But the most damaging evidence is the Americans' failure to avert the coup in the first place. Without that the invasion would not have followed. Evidence from the CIA and the State Department Bureau of Intelligence shows that Washington was repeatedly warned of the junta's intentions and Turkish preparations for a retaliatory invasion, but the State Department failed to act to stop them, as it had in the past.
CIA analysts said: "More and clearer warning of the coup against Makarios was given in this case than is usual." Callaghan rejects the suggestion that this had anything to do with a plan for partition. He likens the American reaction to that of "villagers who live on the slopes of mount Etna cultivating their vines: they know there's going to be an explosion one day, but they get so many alarms they just carry on tending the vines".
He also insists that he never discussed such a plan with Kissinger in the thick of the situation. "Of course, we both knew about talk of partition. Everybody thought it was a last resort. It wasn't a notion anyone wanted to turn to - there might have been some idiots in the CIA, or even MI5."
Curiously, the Americans never discussed with the British arrangements to defend their own intelligence facilities on Cyprus - which have not been publicly acknowledged before. Yet, in an astonishing revelation, Callaghan confirmed not only that the American bases existed, but that, during the invasion, the Turks advanced to a line, drawn up on maps used by Britain, Turkey and Greece, that left the major British facilities intact in the south - and the American ones in the north.
The invasion left secret US spying stations operating in the occupied area, even though officially the US refused to recognise the Turkish-Cypriot administration. "I assumed they were operating after the crisis, certainly. I would have been told if they were not," Callaghan said. "The Turks were willing to let the Americans carry on operating because their presence was a political safeguard against the Russians." Eventually the Americans persuaded the British to stay in Cyprus too.
Opposing my argument of an international plot, Callaghan complains that Kissinger, who still keeps in touch, has become a "convenient villain - it is now open season for taking pot shots at him". He says people should realise that the special relationship between Britain and America became much more businesslike after the 1970s, but until then there was a "complete interchange of ideas, starting at nuclear weapons and going all the way through international policy".
"I remember having a wonderful time with Jimmy Carter at Guadaloupe, sitting in the captain's cabin of a British guardship discussing the war. I can't imagine Blair and Clinton doing that."
Brendan O'Malley is foreign editor of the Times Educational Supplement. Ian Craig is political editor of the Manchester Evening News. Their book, The Cyprus Conspiracy, is published by I. B. Tauris, Pounds 19.95.
24 featuresThe Times HigherJnovember 12J1999 Callaghan: 'We nearly went to war with Turkey' The Times HigherJnovember 12J1999features 25 'Scandalously, the Oxford English course has never had an Irish writers paper, even when almost everyone else did' sygma Turkish troops invade northern Cyprus, 1974
* Labour MP Andrew Dismore is to raise The THES's revelations in Parliament