In late November 2005 (the actual date has been redacted), a building survey team entered a block of brownstone buildings in the lower east forties of New York City. Comprising of an architect, an engineer, and a number of experienced power tool operators, the group had been tasked by their employer, a well-known property developer, to carry out an invasive study into the unoccupied building to determine possible future commercial development uses.
After examining a number of floors, the architect and engineer were puzzled, because the design they had expected of the building, constructed in the early 20th century, was not what they were encountering. It seemed that most of the building’s inner space was actually taken up behind what seemed to be an inner cocoon comprised of thick concrete walls, the cocoon not being accessible from within the building itself.
Being used to unusual modifications, the team decided to penetrate the wall, and after many hours of drilling managed to break through into what seemed to be a metal lined corridor. The lead architect began to speculate as to whether they were in the correct location, and contacted their head office. Whilst awaiting confirmation, the engineer decided to explore the newly-accessed area.
Climbing through the hole, and the thin metal sheeting they had also penetrated, he found himself in a dusty corridor without any light save from his torch. On moving down the corridor, he entered a larger corridor, alongside which were a bank of computers and operator seats, all long abandoned. Loose papers were scattered about the floor.
Just after the corridor he found a room with a large circular table, and a map of the world. Before he could investigate further, a number of FBI agents entered the room, and escorted him back to his colleagues, who were all detained and questioned.
It emerged that the developer’s office had, in fact, made an error, sending the team to the wrong location. The team were released after some hours without charge, and informed merely that the building was an old United Nations office and as such was diplomatically protected.
In the confusion, the engineer forgot to reveal that he had taken one of the scraps of paper from the floor of the corridor. It seemed to be some sort of communications log, dated from 1985, and bore the symbol of a now forgotten organisation called UNCLE.
From the early 1950s until its hurried and ignoble closure in March 1985, the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement was one of the most curious international security organisations that ever existed.
UNCLE was originally devised after discussions between President Eisenhower and Secretary Khrushchev. Both men, living in a new atomic age, felt that whilst both the United States and the USSR were ideological enemies, it was vital that international order be maintained, particularly with regard to atomic, biological and chemical weapons. As a result, both countries, along with Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada and Yugoslavia agreed to create a unified non-ideological organisation for sharing information and coordinating action to maintain political order.
UNCLE, with agents seconded from the participant nations military intelligence divisions, began operations in the mid-1950s, under the control of a council of five nominees, of which the US and USSR would always maintain two, and the remaining members (other countries joined later) would rotate.
The 1960s was UNCLE’s heyday, with the rapid development of technology combined with the US in particular still being open to international cooperation. UNCLE played a major role in foiling a significant number of attempts by political and wealthy groups to interfere in global affairs, including a number of hijacked weapons of mass destruction.
In the 1970s UNCLE’s effectiveness began to be questioned, as blatant attempts to steal nuclear weapons diminished in the face of aircraft hijackings and embassy sieges. In addition, hardliners in both the Kremlin and the United States Senate began to voice suspicions about UNCLE, both believing the organisation was being used by the other side for espionage (the organisation maintained HQs in both the US and USSR), and restrictions started to be imposed on what sort of operations it could engage in. This was ironic given that UNCLE’s most effective enforcement team actually comprised of an American CIA operative and a Russian Naval Intelligence officer.
The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan sharply increased tensions to the extent that President Carter was forced to temporarily ban UNCLE from operating in the United States to placate conservatives, who were now openly demanding US withdrawal.
The election of President Reagan in 1980 did little to help restore UNCLE, despite the organisation’s success in preventing a stolen nuclear weapon from being used in a plot to destroy a nuclear power plant and discredit US energy policy. Following his landslide re-election in 1984, as a bone to conservatives who were actually demanding US withdrawal from the United Nations, Reagan announced in March 1985 the immediate withdrawal of the United States from UNCLE.
This triggered the immediate disbanding of the organisation as the Soviets followed suit, and the rapid closure of its New York headquarters.
The European branches of UNCLE were quickly folded into the organisation which eventually became Europol, and UNCLE was forgotten.
What is surprising is how quickly it faded. UNCLE, despite the secrecy about its internal operations, was actually a publicly known organisation, often mistaken as the enforcement arm of the United Nations Secretary General, with whom it had a strong relationship and did occasionally act on behalf of. Both military and police organisations across the world were enthusiastic supporters of the organisation as both a source of information but also for seconding promising officers.
Sir John Raleigh, UNCLE’s last controller (1983-1985) remarked, before his death in 2012, that in an age of globalisation and companies often more powerful than sovereign states, an organisation like UNCLE was actually more necessary now. He also suggested that the people it would most restrict, the very wealthy and powerful, were aware of that, and had used politics to destroy it. “In the late 1960s a group of powerful people attempted to put their patsy in the White House. UNCLE agents stopped them. These days, that seems to be par for the course.”