MI5 caught with its pants down

An MI5 A4 sur­veil­lance officer has had to resign because his wife sold a story to The News of the World news­pa­per that the For­mula One boss, Max Mos­ley, son of notori­ous fas­cist Sir Oswald Mos­ley, had indulged in a Nazi-inspired orgy with her and four other pros­ti­tutes in a cel­lar in Chelsea, one of the swanki­est areas of London.

This raises an inter­est­ing ques­tion. Either the A4 officer, reportedly a former Royal Mar­ine, had no idea that his wife was work­ing as a pros­ti­tute, in which case, what the hell was he doing work­ing for the sur­veil­lance unit of MI5? Not quite the sharpest knife in the block, then. Or he knew, but chose to keep it quiet – a ser­i­ous vet­ting offence. Which was it?

The move against Mos­ley cer­tainly seems to have been a “hon­eytrap” of sorts – at least on the part of The News of the Screws, which reportedly equipped “Mrs Bond” with the cam­eras. But bey­ond that? The Screws and its sis­ter paper The Sunday Times asser­ted that the MI5 con­nec­tion was just a coin­cid­ence, as did The Sunday Tele­graph, known in spook circles as the in-house magazine of MI6.

The Mos­ley case does have his­tor­ical echoes. A sim­ilar, and notori­ous case, occurred in the 1970s. Lord Lamb­ton, at the time the RAF Min­is­ter in Edward Heath’s gov­ern­ment, was caught in flagrente with a call girl and, even worse, was caught on film smoking a joint. Lamb­ton had to resign in disgrace.

But there was more to it. The News of the Screws pho­to­grapher lurk­ing in the ward­robe had been lent the night-vision cam­era by an MI6 agent to obtain nice, clear images.

Why did MI6, the for­eign intel­li­gence gath­er­ing agency, tar­get Lord Lamb­ton? Well, accord­ing to the agent in ques­tion, Lee Tracey who first came to the public’s atten­tion in the Pro­fumo Affair, MI6 was motiv­ated by a desire to embar­rass MI5, which it deemed not to be up to scratch in its domestic spy­ing work.

So the “hon­eytrap” is a tried and tested method to com­prom­ise your oppon­ents and score polit­ical points. But, unless there is some private feud with the spies, it does seem unlikely in this case. Mos­ley may enjoy an exotic sex life, but does the F1 boss really look like he poses a legit­im­ate threat to national security? .

The more fun­da­mental issue is surely the effect­ive­ness of MI5’s in-house vet­ting sec­tion. How did the A4 officer’s mar­riage to a pros­ti­tute escape their notice? The sec­tion respons­ible, C4, checks the back­grounds of employ­ees to the nth degree – a sys­tem called “Developed Vet­ting”. Any char­ac­ter “defects” must be picked up via an extens­ive series of checks.

In the wake of this scan­dal, an inev­it­able unnamed senior White­hall source was quoted as say­ing “I can­not talk about indi­vidual cases, but we do expect high stand­ards of beha­viour from all staff at all times, both pro­fes­sion­ally and privately”.

Well, sort of….

When I was recruited in 1991, MI5’s primary con­cern was that unknown trans­gres­sions could lead to black­mail. If the mis­de­mean­ours were minor but admit­ted, MI5 ten­ded to turn a blind eye.

In the 1990s MI5 still had an offi­cial policy of not employ­ing homo­sexu­als. As late as the 1980s, homo­sexu­al­ity had been deemed by the ser­vice to be a “char­ac­ter defect”, as well as a poten­tial source of black­mail. As you sign away your employ­ment rights when you join MI5, there was no point in any­one cry­ing “dis­crim­in­a­tion”. The pos­i­tion changed in 1995, and one brave soul did step out of the closet at the time. Also, when I worked there, dope-smoking was com­mon­place amongst young officers – and some coughed (if you’ll par­don the pun) to this dur­ing their vet­ting inter­views. No action was taken. Sim­il­arly, infi­del­ity was a vet­ting offense, but many (mar­ried) officers were at it like the pro­ver­bial rabbits.

Per­haps it has tightened up since my day. How­ever, this seems unlikely given the recent scan­dal. How can we expect MI5 to adequately pro­tect this coun­try when it can’t even police its own staff?

Terrorism Act used against Journalist

A wor­ry­ing art­icle in today’s Guard­ian by the indefatig­able Duncan Camp­bell, in which he reports that police are using the Ter­ror­ism Act (2000) to try to force a journ­al­ist to hand over inform­a­tion from a source.

This issue is the scared cow of journ­al­ism – that they never reveal their sources. To do so would imme­di­ately deter whis­tleblowers from speak­ing in con­fid­ence to the media, and gov­ern­ment crimes and lies would remain secret. The pro­tec­tion of journ­al­istic sources con­trib­utes to safe­guard­ing our demo­cracy, as legis­la­tion such as the Free­dom of Inform­a­tion Act (2000) is effect­ively tooth­less when up against the inner work­ings of the state.

Because of this, journ­al­ists with integ­rity in this coun­try and abroad are will­ing to risk prison rather than hand over their notes. As Camp­bell remarks, this happened to Mar­tin Bright in 2000 when he was Home Affairs Editor at The Observer. The Met­ro­pol­itan Police Spe­cial Branch went crash­ing into the offices on Far­ring­don Road, demand­ing that he hand over all his notes on the Shayler case. More bizar­rely, they also deman­ded a let­ter Shayler had sent to The Guard­ian, even though it had already been pub­lished in the news­pa­per. Thank­fully for Mar­tin, the National Union of Journ­al­ists sup­por­ted him, and the police even­tu­ally backed off.

The fact that the police are using the Ter­ror­ism Act as is a wor­ry­ing new devel­op­ment. But it’s not just pro­duc­tion orders from the police that journ­al­ists and news­pa­pers have to be wor­ried about. The author­it­ies have a range of weapons in their arsenal if they choose to sup­press inform­a­tion eman­at­ing from inner gov­ern­ment circles or the intel­li­gence world. And yet it is within these very circles that the most hein­ous crimes and viol­a­tions are com­mit­ted, and whence the most sig­ni­fic­ant whis­tleblowers tend to emerge. Think Dr David Kelly, David Shayler, Kath­er­ine Gun.

So, what else can the author­it­ies use to sup­press valid cri­ti­cism? Well, firstly and most notori­ously, we have the Offi­cial Secrets Act in the UK. This does not just pre­vent intel­li­gence officers and noti­fied gov­ern­ment offi­cials from ever speak­ing to any­one out­side the agency about any­thing, ever (Sec­tion 1(1)). Slightly less well known is Sec­tion 5, which makes it a crime for any journ­al­ist to receive or eli­cit inform­a­tion from these whis­tleblowers that dam­ages “national secur­ity” (the term to this day remains undefined). Of course, as we saw in the Shayler case, the gov­ern­ment is always extremely reluct­ant to cross the media and enforce this, so it is usu­ally just the unfor­tu­nate whis­tleblower who is hung out to dry.

If the threat of the OSA fails, the gov­ern­ment can always find a tame judge to issue an emer­gency injunc­tion. Again, this happened in the Shayler case, when an injunc­tion was taken out both against him and the UK’s national media. Need­less to say, the injunc­tion against the media was dropped (even this gov­ern­ment quailed at the pro­spect of tak­ing on News Inter­na­tional and the Mail group), but remains in place to this day against the hap­less whistleblower.

This injunc­tion is no small thing. The government’s law­yers have used it to frighten off pub­lish­ers from even look­ing at a novel (that’s right – a work of fic­tion) that Shayler wrote in 1998. Let­ters winged their way from gov­ern­ment law­yers to UK pub­lish­ers in Lon­don in 1999. And when Shayler built a web­site, hos­ted by Tab­net in Cali­for­nia, the gov­ern­ment wrote to them point­ing out that there was an injunc­tion in place and ask­ing for the site to be taken down. Tab­net gently poin­ted out that per­haps the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment had for­got­ten about 1776, and con­tin­ued to host the site.

If the OSA and injunc­tions are not enough, we also have the notori­ous D Notice Com­mit­tee (now rebranded as the Defence Press and Broad­cast­ing Advis­ory Com­mit­tee), a body that can block pub­lic­a­tion of a story by issu­ing a notice at the say-so of the gov­ern­ment. Very appro­pri­ate in a so-called demo­cracy. What makes it worse is that the Com­mit­tee is made up of volun­teers from amongst the great and the good from the media world, as well as rep­res­ent­at­ives from gov­ern­ment depart­ments. These guys, senior edit­ors and TV exec­ut­ives, enter the charmed inner circle and start to police their own industry. It’s amaz­ing how quickly new appointees go nat­ive and fight the government’s corner.

So there you have it – a whole bat­tery of laws to pro­tect the Brit­ish Estab­lish­ment from the scru­tiny and con­struct­ive cri­ti­cism of the media. When a journ­al­ist of integ­rity stands up to the author­it­ies, we should all sup­port them. They are provid­ing a cru­cial ser­vice of vent­il­a­tion and account­ab­il­ity for our retreat­ing demo­cracy. I wish Shiv Malik, the freel­an­cer at the eye of the cur­rent storm, the very best.

 

Cockle Rustlers under Surveillance

Four times in the past three years, powers designed to catch ter­ror­ists have been deployed against poten­tial cockle rust­lers on the sands out­side Poole Har­bour in Dor­set. I kid you not. The Inde­pend­ent news­pa­per yes­ter­day repor­ted that Poole Bor­ough Coun­cil had used the sweep­ing sur­veil­lance of the Reg­u­la­tion of Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Act (2000), oth­er­wise known as RIPA, to police the cockle fish­er­men of Dorset.

RIPA was inten­ded (the gov­ern­ment told us in 2000) merely to update for the inter­net age the old Inter­cep­tion of Com­mu­nic­a­tions Act (1985) that for the first time had reg­u­lated the intrus­ive sur­veil­lance car­ried out by spooks and police. In fact, the Grim RIPA massively expan­ded state intru­sion into our per­sonal lives, so that nine gov­ern­ment organ­iz­a­tions, includ­ing the secur­ity ser­vices and police, and 792 pub­lic author­it­ies (of which 474 are local coun­cils) now have the powers to snoop on our private com­mu­nic­a­tions, and then some.

In fact, doc­u­ments dis­closed under the Free­dom of Inform­a­tion Act sug­gest that Poole Bor­ough Coun­cil may have the dubi­ous dis­tinc­tion of being the nosi­est in the UK, using RIPA not only to police its waters, but also to check on the res­id­en­tial status of loc­als, dam­age caused to traffic bar­ri­ers or other minor infrac­tions. Hardly the stuff of James Bond.

Inad­vert­ently, Poole Coun­cil has provided a clas­sic case of reduc­tio ad absurdum, but this can be use­ful in high­light­ing more ser­i­ous flaws.

In the last dec­ade we have seen a slew of laws passed by our elec­ted rep­res­ent­at­ives in par­lia­ment that are poten­tially dan­ger­ous to our demo­cracy and way of life. All these laws have been whipped through par­lia­ment, and the media has ten­ded not to give them much consideration.

One such law that springs to mind is the Civil Con­tin­gen­cies Act (2004). This was passed with barely a mur­mur and, in the wake of the foot and mouth crisis, was deemed to be A Good Thing. How­ever, the devil is always in the detail. This law allows any senior gov­ern­ment min­is­ter, at the stroke of a pen, to declare a 30 day state of emer­gency. Under these terms, the author­it­ies can pre­vent our free asso­ci­ation at polit­ical meet­ings or demon­stra­tions, they can quar­ant­ine us, or pre­vent us mov­ing freely around our coun­try. They can even seize our homes, demol­ish them, and not have to pay a penny in com­pens­a­tion, as this will have been done to pro­tect “national security”.

But the real stinker was the draft of the Legis­lat­ive and Reg­u­lat­ory Reform Act (2006). If Blair had suc­ceeded in passing this law, it would have spelled the end of 700 years of par­lia­ment­ary demo­cracy in Bri­tain. Had the ori­ginal draft been approved, any senior gov­ern­ment min­is­ter could have abol­ished any law pre­vi­ously passed by our Houses of Parliament.

Not for noth­ing was this nick­named the “Abol­i­tion of Par­lia­ment Bill” (well, that and the fact that its formal title is a tongue-twister – try say­ing it out loud!). Fol­low­ing a cit­izens’ cam­paign, the Bill was watered down as it passed through the Houses of Par­lia­ment. How­ever, even though lim­ited safe­guards have been intro­duced, min­is­ters are still in a pos­i­tion to tinker with any Brit­ish laws except the Human Rights Act. So, the tend­ency for author­it­arian gov­ern­ment may have been reined in this time, but we need to remain vigilant.

Many people are aware and are also appre­hens­ive of how these laws could be mis­used against the cit­izens of the UK if a more ruth­less and dra­conian gov­ern­ment were in power. Many com­ment­at­ors say we are sleep-walking towards a police state. The tragedy is that we are pretty much there – most of the neces­sary laws are in place. It is time for us all to re-engage in the demo­cratic pro­cess and halt this rush towards a com­pletely unac­count­able government.

Straw Man

The gov­ern­ment is push­ing through yet another piece of legis­la­tion designed to provide “pub­lic ser­vice hon­esty, integ­rity and inde­pend­ence” to the Brit­ish people. As part of this strategy, the draft Con­sti­tu­tional Renewal Bill even con­tains a sec­tion to provide pro­tec­tion for gov­ern­ment whis­tleblowers. Need­less to say, spies are auto­mat­ic­ally excluded (see sec­tion 25 (2) of the draft Bill).

The draft Bill states that any whis­tleblowers from within the ranks of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ will be dealt with intern­ally. This has always been the case for MI5 and 6 (des­pite the government’s breath­tak­ing lies dur­ing the Shayler case that he could have gone to any crown ser­vant with his con­cerns). How­ever, in the case of GCHQ, this Bill will take away employ­ees’ rights to go to an inde­pend­ent Com­mis­sioner, to bring it into dra­conian line with its sis­ter agencies.

So, to put this bluntly, those in our intel­li­gence agen­cies who exper­i­ence eth­ical qualms about their work or, even worse, wit­ness crimes, will have to take their con­cerns to the head of the very agency com­mit­ting these crimes. Let’s guess how far these com­plaints will go.

Now, some might say that it’s naïve to think that the intel­li­gence agen­cies don’t com­mit illegal or uneth­ical acts. All I can say to that is — grow up. James Bond is a myth. Even the bad old days of the Cold War when, as former MI5 officer Peter Wright put it, MI5 could “bug and burgle its way around Lon­don” with impun­ity are long gone. The 1985 Inter­cep­tion of Com­mu­nic­a­tions Act (and sub­sequent legis­la­tion), the 1989 Secur­ity Ser­vice Act, and the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act, have put paid to that. In line with basic human rights, the spies now have to apply for min­is­terial per­mis­sion based on, ahem, a solid intel­li­gence case, to aggress­ively invest­ig­ate a target.

Dur­ing the 10 month period of my recruit­ment to MI5 in 1990, I was repeatedly told that the organ­isa­tion had to obey the law; that it was evolving into a mod­ern counter-terrorism agency. If that is indeed the case, then why is MI5 still to this day not account­able in the same way as the Met­ro­pol­itan Police Spe­cial Branch, which does the same work?

And who is the brave politi­cian ensur­ing that our intel­li­gence com­munity can remain shrouded in secrecy and pro­tec­ted from cri­ti­cism by the full force of the law? Stand up Justice Min­is­ter Jack Straw.

It just remains for me to say that Straw has a cer­tain his­tory in this area. In 1997, when Shayler blew the whistle, Straw was the Home Sec­ret­ary, the gov­ern­ment min­is­ter charged with over­see­ing MI5. One of Shayler’s early dis­clos­ures was that MI5 held files on a num­ber of politi­cians, includ­ing Straw him­self. Did Straw demand to see his file in angry dis­be­lief? No, he meekly did the spies’ bid­ding and issued a blanket injunc­tion against Shayler and the UK’s national media.

But think about it — this is a clas­sic Catch 22 situ­ation. Either MI5 was right to open a file on Straw because he was a polit­ical sub­vers­ive and a danger to national secur­ity – in which case, should he not have imme­di­ately resigned as Home Sec­ret­ary? Or MI5 got it wrong about Straw. In which case he should have been invest­ig­at­ing this mis­take and demand­ing to know how many other inno­cent UK cit­izens had files wrongly and illeg­ally opened on them.

But Straw did neither. Per­haps he was wor­ried about what the spies could reveal about him? It’s inter­est­ing that he is yet again rush­ing to pro­tect their interests….

 

CCTV doesn’t prevent crime

So, the argu­ment about CCTV and our big brother soci­ety rumbles on. A senior police­man, Detect­ive Chief Inspector Mick Neville of the Visual Images, Iden­ti­fic­a­tions and Detec­tions Office (Viido) at New Scot­land Yard, has been quoted as say­ing that only 3 per cent of crimes have been solved by CCTV evid­ence. Des­pite the UK hav­ing the highest per cap­ita num­ber of CCTVs in the world, this brave new world has failed to make us safer.

A few other police forces, and nat­ur­ally the secur­ity com­pan­ies flog­ging the kit, say that CCTV has at least dra­mat­ic­ally reduced oppor­tun­istic crimes. Who should we believe?

What can­not be dis­puted is the fact that there are well over 4,000,000 CCTVs in this coun­try, and the organ­isa­tion, Pri­vacy Inter­na­tional, assesses that we are the most watched cit­izenry in Europe.

While some law-abiding cit­izens say they feel intim­id­ated by CCTV and how the inform­a­tion could poten­tially be mis­used, most people seem not to care. In fact, the major­ity appar­ently feel safer if they can see CCTV on the streets, even if this per­vas­ive sur­veil­lance has in no way dis­cour­aged crimes of viol­ence. So why this gap between per­cep­tion and reality?

One of my pet the­or­ies has always been to blame Big Brother. No, not the book. I have always been flum­moxed by the pop­ular­ity of the TV show and the pleth­ora of real­ity TV spin-offs. My instinct­ive reac­tion was that it was sim­ilar to being “groomed” to accept round-the-clock intru­sion into our per­sonal lives. More than accept – desire it. The clear mes­sage is that such sur­veil­lance can lead to instant fame, wealth and access to the Z-list parties of Lon­don. And for that we are sleep-walking into a real Orwellian nightmare.

Slightly flip­pant the­or­ies aside, it is inter­est­ing that one of the most cited examples of the need for CCTV was the Bish­opsgate bomb­ing in Lon­don in 1993. In this case a lorry bomb, filled with a tonne of home made explos­ive (HME) was det­on­ated in the heart of the city of Lon­don by the IRA. One per­son was killed, many were injured, and hun­dreds of mil­lions of pounds worth of dam­age was caused, not to men­tion the fact threat the IRA scored a huge pub­li­city coup.

But this had noth­ing to do with the lack or oth­er­wise of CCTV in the streets of the City. It was an intel­li­gence fail­ure, pure and simple.

This attack could and should have been pre­ven­ted. It occurred while I was work­ing in MI5, and it was widely known in the ser­vice at the time that the bomber should have been arres­ted six months before dur­ing a sur­veil­lance oper­a­tion. Des­pite the fact that he was seen check­ing out another lorry bomb in stor­age, he was allowed to walk free and escape to the Repub­lic of Ire­land due to pro­ced­ural cock-ups. Months later, he returned to the City and bombed Bishopsgate.

By rely­ing increas­ingly on tech­no­lo­gies to pro­tect us, we are fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of the Amer­ic­ans. They have always had an over-reliance on gad­gets and giz­mos when seek­ing to invest­ig­ate crim­in­als and ter­ror­ists: satel­lite track­ing, phone taps, bugs. But this hoover­ing up of inform­a­tion is never an adequate replace­ment for pre­cise invest­ig­at­ive work. Plus, any crim­inal or ter­ror­ist worth their salt these days knows not to dis­cuss sens­it­ive plans electronically.

Scatter-gun approaches to gath­er­ing intel­li­gence, such as blanket sur­veil­lance, still at this stage require human beings to pro­cess and assess it for evid­en­tial use. That, accord­ing to DCI Neville, is part of the prob­lem. There is just too much com­ing in, not enough staff, insuf­fi­cient co-operation between forces, and the job lacks per­ceived status within the police.

The other prob­lem of an over-reliance on tech­no­logy is that it can always be hacked. The most recent hack­ing has broken the RFID chips that we all carry in our pass­ports, Oyster cards and the planned ID cards. New tech­no­lo­gies can­not guar­an­tee that our per­sonal data is secure, so rather than pro­tect­ing us, they make us more liable to crimes such as iden­tity theft.

So once again national and local gov­ern­ment bod­ies have rushed to buy up tech­no­logy, without fully think­ing through either its applic­a­tion or its use­ful­ness. And without fully assess­ing the implic­a­tions for a free soci­ety. Just because the tech­no­logy exists, it does not mean that it is fit for pur­pose, nor that it will make us safer.

 

Iran threat ramped up

The Sunday Times repor­ted last week­end that Sir John Scar­lett, the cur­rent head of MI6, is to fly to Israel at the end of the month to meet his counter-part, Meir Dagan, the head of Mossad. White­hall has tried to down­play the meet­ing as “routine”. How­ever, the focus of the meet­ing appears to be to dis­cuss Israel’s assess­ment of Iran’s nuc­lear capability.

In recent years the neo-cons in power in the US have made no secret of their desire to “fin­ish the job” in the Middle East and attack Iran. For the last two years there has been much sabre-rattling on both sides. The polem­ics from the US usu­ally coin­cided with Iran’s plans to trade increas­ing amounts of its oil in euros. The south west region of Iran has vast oil reserves, and if Iran switched trad­ing cur­ren­cies, this would have an extremely det­ri­mental effect on the power of the petro­dol­lar, and the Amer­ican eco­nomy as a whole.

Lest we for­get, Sad­dam Hus­sein had also begun to trade in euros what little oil he could prior to the Iraq war in 2003. Scar­lett, a career MI6 officer, played a lead­ing role in mak­ing the case for that war. At the time he was Chair of the Joint Intel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, and came to pub­lic atten­tion when he signed off the notori­ous Septem­ber Dossier. It has since become appar­ent that Iraq did not have WMD, nor was it try­ing to acquire uranium from Niger, as MI6 had stated in the dossier. This claim was based on forged documents.

So the tim­ing of the new Israeli intel­li­gence is inter­est­ing, to say the least. Last week, Iran announced that it was going to trade ALL its oil in euros and the yen, and Israel appears to be furi­ously lob­by­ing the US and UK about Iran’s increas­ing nuc­lear threat. Israeli intel­li­gence sources are claim­ing that they have inform­a­tion “on a par with” that which led to the bomb­ing of the Syr­ian nuc­lear power station.

Based on this, they are ask­ing the US gov­ern­ment to reas­sess the level of threat posed by Iran. In Decem­ber 2007 the com­bined think­ing of the whole of America’s intel­li­gence infra­struc­ture was pub­lished in the US National Intel­li­gence Estim­ate. It clearly stated that Iran had stopped devel­op­ing its nuc­lear weapons pro­gramme in 2003 because of inter­na­tional pressure.

But the appar­ent tri­umph of inter­na­tional dip­lomacy does not suit the agenda of the hawks in the US admin­is­tra­tion. What could be bet­ter than to have the spy agen­cies of its closest allies con­veni­ently reveal new intel­li­gence say­ing that Iran now poses an increas­ing nuc­lear threat?

The (Il)legal Road to War

Yet another art­icle has appeared about the mess that is the wars in Afgh­anistan and Iraq. Max Hast­ings, writ­ing in the Daily Mail yes­ter­day, described how our sol­diers in Afgh­anistan feel that the con­tin­ued con­flict is point­less if there is no clear polit­ical strategy to resolve the situation.

The Brit­ish army is over­stretched, appar­ently at the behest of the USA. Accord­ing to the art­icle, our mil­it­ary badly needs to redeploy both nor­mal troops and the SAS from Iraq to Afgh­anistan, but the US is unwill­ing to allow this to hap­pen for polit­ical reas­ons. The Amer­ic­ans also appear to be mak­ing shame­less use of the SAS.

So, let’s remind ourselves of how we got into this mess. At an informal meet­ing with Bush in 2002, Blair uni­lat­er­ally com­mit­ted this coun­try to sup­port the Amer­ican inva­sion of Iraq. Without the sup­port of Blair, Bush could not have pre­ten­ded that he had a mean­ing­ful inter­na­tional coali­tion to invade Iraq.

Hav­ing made this prom­ise, Blair needed to deliver. Intel­li­gence mater­ial, rather than being used to inform policy mak­ing, was manip­u­lated to fit around pre-determined decisions. This was sum­mar­ised clearly by the then head of MI6, Sir Richard Dear­love, in the notori­ous leaked “Down­ing Street Memo”, in which he is quoted as say­ing that the intel­li­gence and facts were being fixed around the policy.

Fol­low­ing on from this came the Septem­ber Dossier, which not only placed undue emphasis on the claim that WMD could be launched against Brit­ish interests in 45 minutes, but also the fake intel­li­gence that Sad­dam was try­ing to pro­cure uranium from Niger. And finally, we had the Dodgy Dossier of Feb­ru­ary 2003, based largely on a 12 year old PhD thesis culled from the inter­net, but which also con­tained nug­gets of raw intel­li­gence from MI6. Inter­est­ingly, it has been estab­lished by the For­eign Affairs Select Com­mit­tee in par­lia­ment that Blair did not have prior writ­ten per­mis­sion from MI6 to pub­lish this intel­li­gence, which leaves him wide open to pro­sec­u­tion under Sec­tion 1(1) of the 1989 Offi­cial Secrets Act.

These are the false asser­tions that inex­or­ably took this coun­try to war. But even if these claims had been true, aggress­ive war is illegal under both inter­na­tional and Brit­ish law. A raft of legis­la­tion pro­hib­its our coun­try enga­ging in any mil­it­ary action except in self-defence:

Just Foreign Policy Iraqi Death EstimatorThe Gen­eral Treaty for the Renun­ci­ation of War (Kellogg-Briand Pact)
The United Nations Charter
The Nurem­burg Judg­ment
The Nurem­burg Prin­ciples
The Rome Stat­ute of the Inter­na­tional Crim­inal Court
The UK’s Inter­na­tional Crim­inal Court Act 2001

The Iraq and Afghan wars are unwinnable and illegal. It is time for the people of the UK to inform them­selves of the laws of war and demand that they be upheld. We are all equal under the law – even the former Prime Min­is­ter. Every day we delay res­ults in the deaths of more of our ser­vice­men and of yet more inno­cent people in the Middle East.

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Spies and the Law

For con­text, here’s a little bit of back­ground inform­a­tion about the UK’s spy agen­cies, and the legal con­straints within which they are sup­posed to operate.

There are three primary agen­cies: MI5 (the UK Secur­ity Ser­vice), MI6 (Secret Intel­li­gence Ser­vice — SIS) and GCHQ (the Gov­ern­ment Com­mu­nic­a­tions HQ). Bey­ond this inner circle, there is the Met­ro­pol­itan Police Spe­cial Branch (MPSB), the spe­cial branches of every other police force in the UK, mil­it­ary intel­li­gence, and Cus­toms, amongst others.

MI5 and MI6 were set up in 1909 dur­ing the build up to the First World War, when their remit was to uncover Ger­man spies. For the next 80 years they didn’t offi­cially exist and oper­ated out­side the law.

In 1989 MI5 was put on a legal foot­ing for the first time when par­lia­ment passed the Secur­ity Ser­vice Act. This stated that it had to work within legal para­met­ers, and if it wanted to do some­thing that would oth­er­wise be illegal, such as break­ing into and bug­ging someone’s house, it had to get the writ­ten per­mis­sion of its polit­ical mas­ter, the Home Sec­ret­ary. Without that, MI5 would be break­ing the law just as you or I would be.

MI6 and GCHQ were not put on a legal foot­ing until the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act, and are answer­able to the For­eign Sec­ret­ary. The same Act also set up the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee in Par­lia­ment as a sop to demo­cratic over­sight. The ISC is respons­ible for over­see­ing the policy, fin­ance and admin­is­tra­tion of the three agen­cies. It has abso­lutely no remit to look at their oper­a­tional run­ning, nor can it invest­ig­ate alleged crimes com­mit­ted by them. Even if it could, the ISC has no power to call for wit­nesses or demand doc­u­ments from the spooks. Moreover, the com­mit­tee is appoin­ted by the Prime Min­is­ter, answer­able only to him, and he can vet its find­ings. Much of the ISC’s annual reports are blanked out.

When I was recruited by MI5 in the early 1990s, the organ­isa­tion was at great pains to explain that it worked within the law, was account­able, and its work was mainly invest­ig­at­ing ter­ror­ism. Once I began work­ing there, this quickly proved to be untrue. MI5 is incom­pet­ent, it breaks the law, con­nives at the impris­on­ment of inno­cent people, illeg­ally bugs people, lies to gov­ern­ment (on whom it holds per­sonal files) and turns a blind eye to false flag ter­ror­ism. This is why I resigned and helped to blow the whistle.

With all this hys­teria about the threat from Al Qaeda, and the ava­lanche of new powers and resources being thrown at the spooks, as well the erosion of our liber­ties, we need to keep a cool head. Why don’t our politi­cians take a step back and ask what pre­cisely are the scale and nature of the threats facing this coun­try, and how can we best police them? As Sir Ian Blair recently showed, we can­not take the secur­ity forces’ words about this at face value.

There’s a lot of his­toric bag­gage attached to MI5 and 6, par­tic­u­larly after their dirty tricks against the left in the 1980s. As they are now primar­ily doing a poli­cing job against ter­ror­ism, why not just clear the decks and start again? Set up a ded­ic­ated counter-terrorism agency, which is prop­erly account­able to par­lia­ment, as the police already are and the spies are not.

As it stands the UK has the most secret­ive intel­li­gence agen­cies in the west­ern world. They are exempt from the Free­dom of Inform­a­tion Act, and pro­tec­ted by the dra­conian Offi­cial Secrets Act. The 1989 OSA makes it a crim­inal offence for any­one to blow the whistle on crimes com­mit­ted by the spies, and it is no longer pos­sible for a whis­tleblower to argue that they acted in the pub­lic interest.

No other west­ern demo­cracy has spies who are quite so unac­count­able, nor so pro­tec­ted from scru­tiny by the law. The closest ana­lo­gies are prob­ably the intel­li­gence agen­cies of coun­tries such as Libya or Iran. Par­tic­u­larly as we now know that MI5 and MI6 officers are con­niv­ing in extraordin­ary rendi­tion and the use of torture.

Are they legal? Yes, now, in the­ory. Do they abide by the law? Only when it suits them. Are they eth­ical? Abso­lutely not.

UK Police Chief Misleads MPs

An inter­est­ing art­icle appeared in The Sunday Times today, stat­ing that Britain’s top police­man, the Com­mis­sioner of the Met­ro­pol­itan Police Sir Ian Blair, had “unwit­tingly” misled the par­lia­ment­ary Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee about the need to increase the period of deten­tion without charge for ter­ror­ist sus­pects in the UK from 28 to 42 days. Blair claimed that 12 major ter­ror­ist oper­a­tions had been foiled in Bri­tain since 2005. In fact, the art­icle reports that only 6 plots have been stopped. Blair has had to issue a grov­el­ling apo­logy via the Press Asso­ci­ation for this, umm, gaffe.

But the art­icle neg­lects to tell us how and why this new inform­a­tion came to light. So allow me to speculate.

The Met, along with its shad­owy cohorts in MI5, is entrus­ted with pro­tect­ing Bri­tain from ter­ror­ist threats. Since 9/11 and the all-pervasive war on ter­ror, Britain’s secur­ity forces have been gran­ted sweep­ing new powers, resources and a huge increase in staff­ing levels to do this job. To ensure this is jus­ti­fied, they are con­tinu­ally telling us of the huge threat we face from ter­ror­ism and how suc­cess­ful they are in pro­tect­ing us. It is in their interests to talk this up.

Mean­while, over on the south bank of the river, MI6 con­tin­ues to suf­fer from the loss of prestige brought about by its mis­takes and lack of good intel­li­gence in the run-up to the Iraq inva­sion. There is no love lost between these three agen­cies, as they com­pete for power and resources. So, to use a good civil ser­vice phrase, I can­not rule out the pos­sib­il­ity that someone in MI6 leaked this inform­a­tion to have a pop at the Met and MI5.

How­ever, there is a more ser­i­ous aspect to this incid­ent. But for this inform­a­tion emer­ging, MPs and pub­lic alike would have had no way of know­ing that the per­ceived threat from ter­ror­ism had been grossly inflated in order for the police to gain yet more powers. We would have had to take Sir Ian’s word.

Well, we’ve been here before many, many times, most notori­ously when the intel­li­gence agen­cies would have us believe that Sad­dam had WMD that could attack Brit­ish interests with 45 minutes. This, of course, led to the Iraq war and the deaths of hun­dreds of thou­sands of inno­cent men, women and children.

So how can we ensure we are told the truth by the spies? Well, greater account­ab­il­ity and effect­ive par­lia­ment­ary over­sight would be a step in the right dir­ec­tion. But we don’t just need the cor­rect mech­an­isms in place in par­lia­ment. We also need MPs with the know­ledge, intel­li­gence and integ­rity to ask the dif­fi­cult ques­tions when faced with bogus assertions.

British Spies and Torture

On 30th April, The Guard­ian news­pa­per repor­ted that yet another man, picked up in a Brit­ish counter-terrorism oper­a­tion in Pakistan, has come for­ward claim­ing that he was tor­tured by the Pakistani intel­li­gence agency, the ISI, with the col­lu­sion of Brit­ish spooks

This is part of a grow­ing body of evid­ence indic­at­ing that Brit­ish intel­li­gence officers are con­tinu­ing to flout the law in one of the most hein­ous ways pos­sible, the pro­longed tor­ture of another human being. Alleg­a­tions have been emer­ging for years that detain­ees of notori­ous camps such as Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib have heard Brit­ish voices either dur­ing the inter­rog­a­tion ses­sions or dir­ect­ing the line of ques­tion­ing. Many of these detain­ees are also the vic­tims of “extraordin­ary rendi­tion”, in itself an extraordin­ar­ily euphemistic phrase for the kid­nap­ping and trans­port­a­tion of ter­ror­ist sus­pects to Third World coun­tries where they can be held indef­in­itely and tor­tured with impunity.

This is a situ­ation that haunts me. I worked as an intel­li­gence officer for MI5 in the 1990s, before leav­ing to blow the whistle. Per­haps I worked with some of the people now dir­ectly involved in tor­ture? Per­haps I was even friends with some of them, met them for drinks, had them round for din­ner? How could young, ideal­istic officers, com­mit­ted to pro­tect­ing their coun­try by legal means, make that per­sonal moral jour­ney and par­ti­cip­ate in such bar­baric acts?

These ques­tions ran through my head when, in 2007, I had the hon­our to meet a gentle, spir­itual man called Moazzam Begg. He is a Brit­ish cit­izen who went to Pakistan with his fam­ily to help build a school. One night, his door was broken down, and he was hooded, cuffed and bundled out of his home by Amer­ic­ans, in front of his hys­ter­ical wife and young chil­dren. That was the last they saw of him for over 3 years. Ini­tially he was tor­tured in the notori­ous Bagram air­base, before end­ing up in Guantanamo, which he said was a relief to reach as the con­di­tions were so much bet­ter. Need­less to say, he was released with out charge, and is now suing MI5 and MI6 for com­pens­a­tion. He has also writ­ten a book about his exper­i­ences and now spends his time help­ing the cam­paign, Cage Pris­on­ers.

Bri­tain was the first state to rat­ify the European Con­ven­tion of Human Rights, which includes Art­icle 3 — no one shall be sub­jec­ted to tor­ture or to inhu­man or degrad­ing treat­ment or pun­ish­ment. It is impossible for a state to derog­ate from this art­icle. So how and why has Bri­tain stooped to the level that it will appar­ently par­ti­cip­ate in such activ­ity? The “apo­ca­lyptic scen­ario” much loved by apo­lo­gists of tor­ture, where a ter­ror­ist has to be broken to reveal the loc­a­tion of the tick­ing bomb, occurs only in fant­ast­ical TV dra­mas like “24”, never in real life.

In the 1990s the accep­ted MI5 pos­i­tion was that tor­ture doesn’t work. This was a les­son the UK secur­ity forces had learned the hard way in 1970s North­ern Ire­land. Then, IRA sus­pects had been roun­ded up, interned without trial and sub­jec­ted to what the Amer­ic­ans would no doubt nowadays call “enhanced inter­rog­a­tion tech­niques”. But the secur­ity forces got it wrong. The vast major­ity of internees were arres­ted on the basis of the flim­si­est intel­li­gence and had no links what­so­ever with the IRA. Well, at least when they entered prison. Intern­ment proved to be the best pos­sible recruit­ing drive for the IRA.

So why has this think­ing changed? I would sug­gest this is part of a core prob­lem for MI5 – the shroud of secrecy within which it con­tin­ues to oper­ate and the com­plete lack of account­ab­il­ity and over­sight for the organ­isa­tion. There is no vent­il­a­tion, no con­struct­ive cri­ti­cism, no debate. Once a new doc­trine has been adop­ted by the lead­er­ship, in slav­ish imit­a­tion of US policy, it rap­idly spreads through­out the organ­isa­tion as officers are told to “just fol­low orders”. To do any­thing else is career sui­cide. This leads to a self-perpetuating olig­archy where illegal or uneth­ical beha­viour is accep­ted as the norm.

Of course, you may well argue that a spy organ­isa­tion has to oper­ate in secret. Well, yes and no. Of course it needs to pro­tect sens­it­ive oper­a­tional tech­niques, ongo­ing oper­a­tions and the iden­tit­ies of agents. How­ever, bey­ond that it should be open to scru­tiny and demo­cratic account­ab­il­ity, just as the police anti-terrorism branch is. After all, they do vir­tu­ally the same work, so why should they be any less accountable?

The tra­di­tion of UK spies oper­at­ing in abso­lute secrecy is a hangover from the bad old days of the cold war, and is utterly inap­pro­pri­ate to a mod­ern counter-terrorist organ­isa­tion. Increased open­ness and account­ab­il­ity is not only essen­tial in a mod­ern demo­cracy, it also ensures that the spies can­not con­tinue to brush their mis­takes and crimin­al­ity under the car­pet. Bri­tain deserves bet­ter from those charged with pro­tect­ing its national security.