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What's a little spying between friends? Phone-tapping between allies is nothing new says LSE historian

Evidence that Britain tapped the phone calls of American diplomats in the interwar years has been uncovered by an historian at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) it was revealed today (Friday 25 October).

While examining newly released materials at the National Archives over the summer, Dr Antony Best – Senior Lecturer in International History –  discovered the transcript of a telephone call between an American official in London and the Secretary of State in Washington.

The official, Norman Davis, was the leader of the American delegation to a conference on limiting UK, US and Japanese naval forces which took place in 1934. The transcript had clearly been made without the individuals’ knowledge.

Dr Best said: “Britain was clearly tapping the phones of the American embassy in peacetime. And it’s highly likely that we would have been treating other foreign embassies in the same way. So while the current furore over the claims that the US has been spying on its friends is understandable, it’s really nothing new.”

Iold telephonen the document Davis relates how he has been trying to pacify the British government after the New York Times had published an article which claimed that many in the State Department wanted to see the then British Foreign Secretary, Sir John Simon, leave office as they had no confidence in him.  

Dr Best said: “This is the only piece of evidence that I know of that demonstrates that this was British practice in peacetime. It raises interesting questions about interwar diplomacy, because while we are aware that Britain was, at the time, reading the diplomatic telegrams of countries such as Japan, Italy and France, there is little in the public domain about spying on foreign embassies. “

The document that Dr Best discovered was contained in a new release of papers from the Permanent Under-Secretary’s Department at the Foreign Office covering the years from 1939 to 1945. These revealed the kind of intelligence activities that Britain engaged in during wartime, including phone-tapping and the opening of diplomatic bags. It appears that this document, which only contains the date ’22 November’, was released on the assumption that it came from 1939, but it is clear from its context that it must have been from 22 November 1934.  

Dr Best's main fields of research interests lie in Anglo-Japanese relations, the origins of the Pacific War and intelligence and International history. 

25 October 2013

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