Ken Livingstone aide sold Britain's nuclear secrets to Czech spies

Red Ken aide sold Britain’s nuclear secrets to Czech spies: He was a key lieutenant of hard-Left London leader Ken Livingstone – but at the height of the Cold War, Charlie Rossi was passing vital intelligence to our foes behind the Iron Curtain

  • ‘Red’ Ken Livingstone typified the ‘loony Left’ infesting Labour in the early 80s
  • His aide Charlie Rossi sold British nuclear secrets to Czech spies in the Cold War 
  •  Mr Livingstone said: ‘I never saw him as that intelligent, but clearly I was wrong’

Nobody typified the ‘loony Left’ that infested Labour in the early 1980s quite like ‘Red’ Ken Livingstone.

Under his notorious regime, the Greater London Council became a byword for financial extravagance, ideological extremism and taxpayer-funded propaganda.

Red Ken flirted with terrorists and religious bigots. While the nation rejoiced when the Prince of Wales married Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, the GLC raised black flags for the recently deceased IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands at County Hall, the council’s headquarters on the Thames.

In a photograph from later the same year, Mr Livingstone posed outside the building with his lieutenants, pointing theatrically to a banner on the roof proclaiming the number of unemployed in London.

Greater London Council leader Ken Livingstone and colleagues Val Wise, Charlie Rossi (circled), John McDonnell and Michael Ward gather outside the GLC headquarters in County Hall for the unveiling of a 75 foot long sign announcing London’s unemployment figure in 1982

Behind him was the GLC’s vice-chairman, Charlie Rossi, a heavily built, tousle-haired Scotsman – a largely unremarkable figure save for one fact that has remained buried until now.

Cold War intelligence files uncovered in Prague by The Mail on Sunday show that Rossi was a paid agent of Czechoslovakia’s brutal Communist spy agency, the StB – a traitor to his country and, it would seem, even more red than Ken.

Last night, Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6 between 1999 and 2004 and himself a former spy in Czechoslovakia, said: ‘It looks as if he was a fully recruited agent of the Czechoslovak StB and understood exactly what he was doing – another Cold War traitor who deserves to be exposed even long after the event.’

Mr Livingstone said: ‘I’m totally amazed. I never saw him as that intelligent, but clearly I was wrong.’

Rossi’s recruitment in 1983, little more than a year after the photograph was taken, came at a time when East-West relations were at rock bottom, with both sides vying for nuclear supremacy.

Such was the prevailing knife-edge paranoia that some months later, the Soviets became convinced that a routine Nato exercise was an imminent attack. This was a crucial Cold War juncture when the right state secret, however outwardly trifling, could tip the balance between the foes.

Rossi was filmed taking payouts from Czech spies during the Cold War for trading British secrets

It was against this tense background that Rossi fell into the arms of the Czechs. Like others before him, he was targeted at a reception at the Czech Embassy on Kensington Palace Gardens, West London.

Rossi, then 55, was approached by Major Josef Houzvicka, the top Czech spy in London, who identified the burly figure before him as a potentially fruitful source.

From then on – for two-and- a-half years, according to the newly declassified documents – the Labour councillor handed over as much sensitive information as he could lay his hands on. The Czechs were impressed with their haul. Rossi passed on details of Britain’s weapons development, the location of nuclear bunkers and information on civil defence in London.

Rossi met his paymasters from the StB (Státní bezpecnost) intelligence agency 35 times between 1983 and 1985, mostly in upmarket restaurants. Sometimes there were exchanges in the open, often in an underpass where two of the capital’s busiest arteries, the Edgware Road and Marylebone Road, met.

He was also used as a talent spotter, giving the Czechs access to others to approach or monitor.

For his treachery, the files state Rossi was paid more than £700 (about £2,500 in today’s money) and received numerous gifts such as vases, porcelain and crystal. The documents show that Rossi joined a select band of politicians who were paid agents of the Warsaw Pact, along with Labour MPs John Stonehouse and Will Owen.

After studying the files, Professor Anthony Glees, a security and intelligence expert at the University of Buckingham, said Rossi was ‘certainly a traitor to our country’.

He added: ‘He betrayed people and his friends in the Labour movement but he was set up to be a cog in a Communist intelligence machine with many moving parts.

‘There are secret meetings and an agreement to spy for them in particular around civil defence – he’s fulfilling the tasks and is clearly interested in the money. This was a period of very aggressive intelligence gathering when the Czechs and the Soviets were desperate for any information which could help build a picture in the event of a possible nuclear war.’

Rossi, then 55, was approached by Major Josef Houzvicka, the top Czech spy in London, who identified the burly figure before him as a potentially fruitful source

Rossi was known to his friends as the ‘rat catcher’ after his time working as a pest control officer. In truth, he was the rat who was never caught, an irony unlikely to have been lost on him.

He was lauded by Major Houzvicka for ‘his natural ability to negotiate with people [that] has enabled him to establish an extensive base of contacts’.

Rossi was given the codename ‘SKOT’ by the Czechs, possibly a reference to his Scottish heritage, and the pair’s relationship quickly developed. Both men carried matching Marks & Spencer carrier bags to exchange documents. Rossi handed over secrets and received further instructions in return. They also had an elaborate system of code words and back-up meeting places. Chalk marks drawn in a public toilet near Tower Hill alerted Rossi to the need for an emergency liaison.

By June 1983 the Czech agency was keen to cement its relationship and proposed a ‘recruitment’ meeting in Prague with the ‘leadership body’. The Labour councillor was duly enlisted as a delegate to the World Peace Conference in the Czech capital.

That year the conference, a pro-Soviet front organisation, was agitating against the deployment of US nuclear missiles in Europe.

It was at this conference that John Simpson, the BBC’s celebrated foreign correspondent, almost fell for a honeytrap set by a glamorous hotel receptionist ‘Anna’ working for the Czech security services.

Although Simpson did not succumb to her charms in Prague – ‘there was more than a touch of animal magnetism,’ he admitted – Anna began writing to him in Londnon and suggested meeting in Hungary. But a suspicious Simpson alerted MI5, whose agents later explained that a tryst with her would have undoubtedly led to a blackmail attempt by the Czechs.

Rossi was known to his friends as the ‘rat catcher’ after his time working as a pest control officer. In truth, he was the rat who was never caught, an irony unlikely to have been lost on him

But for Charlie Rossi, who was staying at the luxury Hotel International in Prague, the focus was on his Czech spymasters.

A meeting was held in the hotel lobby between Rossi and a suited Major Houzvicka, secretly recorded both on camera and audio by the Czech secret service, apparently to ensure it had kompromat to keep a grip on the agent.

With seats carefully chosen to allow the cameraman a clear line of sight, Rossi – dressed in a light-coloured jumper – was seen enjoying beer and coffee before accepting around £400 – about £1,400 in today’s money – as a reward for information provided in the previous six months. This included Government plans on civil defence in the event of a nuclear attack.

A report co-written by Major Houzvicka said: ‘SKOT received 250 pounds Sterling and 3,000 Czechoslovak crowns as a financial reward for his fulfilment of tasks so far and for his assistance with uncovering the plans by the British Conservative Party to prepare for a potential nuclear missile attack.

‘When the money was handed over, it was emphasised by the leadership body that Czechoslovak officials greatly appreciated the information and handover of materials and hoped for further development and deepening of collaboration.’

Following Rossi and Houzvicka’s return to London, the meetings continued apace. Later that year, on December 21, 1983, the two men met at the La Lupa restaurant on Connaught Street in Bayswater. At this meeting Rossi was able to offer his Czech handler sensitive information on British torpedo weapons development.

The file stated: ‘… following consultation with representatives of ‘Scottish Civil Engineers against Nuclear War’ he had determined that the self-propelling computerised torpedo Captor is manufactured in Britain by Plessey Co Ltd.It is not a foreign product. He will find out more details about that weapon.’

Two days later a meeting was arranged after Rossi informed his handler of new Government plans for civil nuclear defence.

The files say: ‘SKOT also informed at the meeting that new regulations regarding civil defence had been issued, and the GLC received new instructions. He will try to bring them on 23 December.’

The meeting would be ‘at the entrance to the London Underground station Victoria Embankment [with a less frequented underpass], for handover of a report with 30 lines’.

By the following February, 1984, the Czechs wished to reaffirm their covert relationship with Rossi and once again chose La Lupa for the meeting. Major Houzvicka, whose route was secured against surveillance by a colleague, made his way to the meeting by taking his ‘sons to their karate training at Kensal Green (in case I needed to disclose details to local authorities)’.

In his report, he wrote that he told Rossi: ‘I wanted to use the meeting on behalf of the comrades from Prague whom he had not forgotten and whom through contact with me he had already provided a lot of valuable knowledge, particularly regarding civil defence, and I gave him a modest reward in the amount of 200 GBP.’

After placing the envelope on the table ‘when none of the servers could see it’, Rossi thrust it into his breast pocket – rather ‘too quickly’ for the spy’s liking.

He is then said to have told his Czech handler that ‘of course he was glad to assist and that we could always count on him’.

Rossi’s information and status as a paid agent was also shared with Russia’s KGB spy agency via their internal database, the files show.

Throughout 1984 he continued to provide a steady flow of information to his handlers, including Home Office civil defence documents and the whereabouts of nuclear bunkers.

Rossi’s information and status as a paid agent was also shared with Russia’s KGB spy agency via their internal database, the files show

In April 1984 Rossi was able to tell his handler ‘about the start of construction of a new bunker for the commanders of Nato in High Wycombe’. A four-storey bunker, designed to withstand a direct hit from a 1,000 lb bomb, had been started at RAF High Wycombe in 1982 and it remains operational to this day. The conspiracy foundered following a meeting between Rossi and Major Houzvicka in April 1985 in the French city of Rennes.

On his return, Rossi was questioned by the authorities about his trip, which caused him some alarm. A final report in October 1985 revealed that the Czechs suspected that the British security services had uncovered the relationship by tailing Rossi and may have broken into his flat while he was away.

It was at this time that the double-agent for MI6, Oleg Gordievsky, who as a KGB spy had regularly met Major Houzvicka in London, was extracted from Moscow by the British after he was uncovered by his Russian spymasters.

Rossi, who lived with his wife in a two-bedroom flat in North London, died in 1994, aged 66.

Mr Livingstone told The Mail on Sunday: ‘I can’t quite believe it. I remember he was pictured with me and my colleagues. I was never terribly impressed by him and never saw any great role for him.’

Rossi’s grandson Billy, 45, said: ‘It’s a huge shock. I never thought my grandad could be capable of something like this – it almost doesn’t add up. He was very strongly opposed to nuclear weapons and used to teach us as children about the horrors of nuclear war.

‘I can only think that he thought he was furthering this cause but to take money for information like this obviously isn’t the way to go about it.’

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