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