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.


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.