MI5 must back use of phone-taps

This is an article of mine that appeared in The Guardian on Wednesday August 03 2005 .

Calls for justice

MI5 must back use of phone-taps

When I worked in MI5 in the 1990s, the use of telephone intercept material (codenamed Linen) was even then a hot topic of discussion. Most of the newer officers and the legal advisers advocated its use. The MI5 old guard tried to claim that it was a sensitive
technique and if used in court, telephone intelligence would be lost.

Everyone knows telephone lines can be bugged. And if, in a specific court case, evidence of particular sensitivity occurred in an intercept, its existence could be protected by public interest immunity certificates.

The withholding of Linen is a hangover from the cold war, when telephone taps were used purely to gather intelligence on espionage and political targets. Now that MI5 is doing largely police-style, evidential work to bring terrorists to trial, it needs to update its methods.

Intelligence gathered from bugs planted in a suspect’s property is already used as evidence in British courts, although this is arguably a more sensitive technique. Most western democracies allow the use of intelligence derived from telephone bugs.

Most Belmarsh internees are incarcerated on the basis of “secret and reliable intelligence” – ie telephone taps – which cannot be used in a court of law to charge them. Perhaps MI5 does not want Linen exposed to the scrutiny of a court of law in these cases because the intelligence is so weak.

In the early 1970s, the then prime minister, Harold Wilson, was dissuaded from employing Judith Hart as a minister because of “secret and reliable intelligence”. It turned out that all she had done was ring up a friend who happened to work in the Communist party HQ and call her “comrade”, a practice common in leftwing circles at the time.

MI5 needs to drag itself into the 21st century and allow its intelligence to be used as evidence. It needs to ensure that the new breed of terrorists threatening our country can feel the full force of British justice, nota bullet in the back of the head.

Annie Machon is the author of Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers: MI5 and the David Shayler Affair