What is this file?
"PRIME MINISTER MARGARET THATCHER - VICTIM"
At least that was the plan, perhaps.
It might be easiest to say what the file is not. It is not the full story, partly because material is redacted, also because other federal agencies will have been responsible for MT's security in the US, particularly when she was PM - primarily the US Secret Service. Some caution is necessary when drawing conclusions from such a source.
On the evidence of this file one might distinguish plots from threats. Threats generally amounted to little or nothing, ravings and angry noise from an individual, but nonetheless received attention, just in case. Plots involved more than one person and had discernible structure and purpose. The file discloses one serious candidate for the title of plot against MT, dating from 1992, with a second, less compelling candidate in 1981. But of course we cannot be sure that these were the only plots ever laid, or even the only ones that came to the attention of the authorities. In fact they are unlikely to have been the only ones, in either sense.
Naturally all identities have been redacted, other than that of the intended victim. Probably that too would have been redacted if a way could have been found.
1981-90: threats against MT as Prime Minister
The earliest material in the file dates from just ahead of MT's first visit to the US after the election of President Reagan, an event which drew a lot of advance attention in the press. On 11 February 1981 the FBI got word "from a source of proven reliability" of a suspicious conversation in a cocktail bar in suburban Washington. Two unidentified men were overhead discussing what sounded like an assassination plan directed against MT and "Lord C" (Lord Carrington, who accompanied her on the visit). The mention of Carrington certainly adds something to the credibility of the report since only those with a close interest would have known who he was or that he was accompanying MT. That the men "spoke in English or Irish accents" perhaps adds a little more.
Follow-up was thorough. People who had been in the bar were identified and interviewed. The New York FBI advised that three IRA terrorists were known to be in the area (the threat apparently focussing on the New York leg of MT's visit when she would be staying at the Waldorf-Astoria), so photos of the three were shown to the original source, but no identification resulted. A photo of a further suspect seemingly was identified, although redactions are so extensive this bit of the story is obscure. FBI offices in Boston, Newark, New Haven and Philadelphia were also alerted "in view of promiximity to New York and because of high number of Irish Americans who may support IRA activities in their area". FBI relations with their source soured badly when they made several unsuccessful attempts to persuade him to undergo a polygraph test. Their next move went down no better: "Source emphatically refused to submit to hypnosis to authenticate his previously furnished information".
And there it rested, more or less. The visit passed off without incident and the case was closed by the FBI and the US Secret Service on 24 March 1981.
The next material chronologically relates to MT's flying visit to Camp David just before Christmas 1984. Two separate pieces of information reached the FBI that she was a target for assassination, one from an informant "of proven reliability in the narcotics field", the other a threatening letter sent to a US Marshal in Los Angeles stating that "the German high command" had ordered the execution of MT and a number of others, including former Secretary of State Alexander Haig. Only the latter is recorded as having been pursued by the FBI. The author was identified as having written "approximately 100,000 letters since 1962. After being diagnosed, he was declared no threat, but was certified as being insane". The case was closed on 11 February 1985.
Camp David provided the setting for an incident almost two years later in 1986 (see inset image above). On 16 November an English born man living in the US was arrested in a state park in Maryland driving a stolen motorcycle. He proved on search also to be in possession of a stolen firearm, with a single round in the chamber, crimes for which he was subsequently sent to gaol in Florida. That he had harboured intentions to kill MT only became apparent in August 1987 when he was interviewed in gaol and confessed the plan "because it had been bothering him". His motive appeared to be to take revenge at the fact that a criminal record acquired in the US would prevent his returning to live in the UK. He had "recently been having dreams about Prime Minister Thatcher in which Prime Minister Thatcher was his mother". An intention to prosecute for the threat to MT was noted in the file.
In November 1989 the FBI received a phone call from a man in Southampton warning of a plot to kill MT and President Bush by a group he called "God's Soldiers". "Complainant stated that if Bush and Thatcher didn't start telling the truth they will be assassinated and it could happen even before Christmas. Complainant continued that if Bush and Thatcher are executed they won't be nailed to a cross as Jesus was". The US Secret Service was the lead agency in the matter so the FBI note was "for the record".
1992: the New York plot
The file comes to life on 21 July 1992 when the FBI received a warning it treated with great care:
a uniquely placed source of the FBI who has an established history of involvement with the PIRA, advised that he was aware of a PIRA plot to assassinate former British Prime Minister, Lady Margaret Thatcher, in the United States. Lady Thatcher is scheduled to be in Washington DC on 9/14/92 to begin a 14-day, multi-city speaking tour.
Not only was the source, who lived in Boston, evidently credible in his links to PIRA, he warned that a New York FBI operative - a "female, secretary-type" - was giving PIRA access to "computers, name checks and ID". This was not the first time such allegations had been heard, turning the Thatcher case into a mole hunt.
PIRA operatives were also identified by name. That information is redacted in the file as released, but the suspects' back history in the US seems to have been thoroughly known to the FBI. They were traced fleeing to New York from San Francisco via Boston, where one of them assaulted a policeman. A bar in New York was known to be a particular focus of their activities although their living quarters in the city were not known. And the suspects were seasoned figures in the organisation, with operational experience. The FBI noted on 9 September: "These individuals are judged capable of carrying out such an act based upon their backgrounds and technical expertise". They were known to the British authorities who believed they would have sufficient evidence against the men to convict them in a British court, but not enough to convince a US court to extradite. The FBI's source had spoken face-to-face with both of them and reported one saying of MT when her picture happened to flash up on tv: "We are going to take care of her. She's coming here soon".
FBI Director William Sessions took the closest personal interest and the investigation was conducted with the tightest possible security, appropriate to information "extremely singular in nature". It happened that Sessions met MT personally over dinner in Washington at the beginning of her visit on 14 September and rang one of his deputies the following morning to place on record his concerns:
He advised that on the evening of 9/14/92 he attended a dinner with Lady Thatcher and was concerned that no physical protection of Lady Thatcher was evident. The Director was advised that the FBI had fully briefed the Diplomatic Security Service regarding the pending threat against Lady Thatcher, however, that Service had decided not to afford her a security detail because the threat lacked specificity. [Various precautionary steps mentioned] ... After being apprised of this information Director Sessions instructed that a note be placed in the file regarding his inquiry. This note complies with Director Session's [sic] instructions.
Did Sessions quietly mention his concerns to MT? It is hard to believe she would not already have been alerted to a threat of this kind, even if he stayed silent. MT made one significant change to her itinerary on this trip, cancelling a stop in Denver. It is not known whether security issues influenced the decision. Certainly there is nothing in the file to suggest that detailed planning for an attack had been detected.
In the event her visit passed without incident. The FBI continued searching for the two PIRA suspects, but without success. By early 1993 they were no longer certain they were still in the US and wondering why there was no active search for the men in Britain and the Republic of Ireland. In July 1993 the New York FBI placed the file on closed status. The Boston FBI continued to look, but it seems that its uniquely placed source had met an untimely end.
There are fragments in the file from later years, but nothing to suggest anything surfaced remotely as serious as the 1992 investigation.
Perhaps there is a bigger truth in the file, not revealed by any individual document, but underlying all. However gratifying it would have been for the PIRA to assassinate MT in the US, and however many opportunities her visits there gave them, would it have made sense for them to do it? Assassinating such an admired friend and close ally of the US on American soil would have caused huge damage to Irish Republicanism and its American support network. In the end, it may all have been talk - at least as far as the US was concerned.