The Media and the Spies

The UK main­stream media has made much this week of Home Sec­ret­ary Jac­qui Smith’s asser­tion that MI5 had not reques­ted the government’s pro­posed exten­sion of the impris­on­ment without charge of ter­ror­ist sus­pects from 28 to 42 days.

This state­ment has caused a furore in the UK, and there is a chance that the PM may lose the key vote in Par­lia­ment on this amend­ment tomorrow.

In fact, such has been the uproar that the Dir­ector Gen­eral of MI5, Jonathan Evans, is repor­ted by Reu­ters to have made a rare pub­lic statement:

Since the secur­ity ser­vice is neither a pro­sec­ut­ing author­ity nor respons­ible for crim­inal invest­ig­a­tions, we are not, and never have been, the appro­pri­ate body to advise the gov­ern­ment on pre-charge deten­tion time lim­its,” he said in a state­ment on the MI5 website.

We have not, there­fore, sought to com­ment pub­licly or privately on the cur­rent pro­pos­als, except to say that we recog­nise the chal­lenge posed for the police ser­vice by the increas­ingly com­plex and inter­na­tional char­ac­ter of some recent ter­ror­ist cases.”

What par­tic­u­larly strikes me about this is an appar­ently insig­ni­fic­ant phrase, “raised pub­licly or privately”.

In con­trast to the Met­ro­pol­itan Police Com­mis­sioner Sir Ian Blair, who admit­ted to “unin­ten­tion­ally mis­lead­ing” the par­lia­ment­ary Joint Com­mit­tee charged with assess­ing the need to increase the deten­tion limit, Evans had refused to give evid­ence about the 42 day issue. So he has cer­tainly not raised this in a pub­licly account­able way.

It’s the word “private” that intrigues me. It reeks of sotto voce dis­cus­sions between old school chums at the grander gentlemen’s clubs in Lon­don: of unat­trib­ut­able brief­ings between anonym­ous MI5 officers and chosen journ­al­ists; and of cosy lunches with Fleet Street edit­ors in the DG’s din­ing room at Thames House, MI5’s Lon­don HQ.

While Evans denies using this meth­od­o­logy around the 42 day issue, his state­ment con­firms that such private dis­cus­sions do indeed play a part in influ­en­cing policy decisions and media perception.

I saw this approach first-hand in the 1990s dur­ing the whis­tleblow­ing years. In fact, it was then that MI5 stepped up its charm offens­ive with politi­cians and journ­al­ists. It was dur­ing one of the first of these cosy media lunches in Thames House, hos­ted by the then DG Stephen Lander, that the respec­ted BBC Dip­lo­matic Editor Mark Urban asked a fate­ful ques­tion about the Gad­dafi Plot and was reportedly told by Lander that “he was not here to answer half-baked ques­tions from smart-arse journ­al­ists”. So there were cer­tain short­falls in the charm, even if the lack of account­ab­il­ity held up well.

But there are other, more sin­is­ter ways for the spies to manip­u­late pub­lic opin­ion. MI6 has a sens­it­ive sec­tion called Inform­a­tion Oper­a­tions (I/Ops), which exists purely to set the news agenda for the spies. I/Ops man­ages this either by mas­sa­ging the facts, spin­ning the tone of the story or, more wor­ry­ingly, plant­ing false stor­ies in a qui­es­cent press.

In the 1990s there was a fam­ous case. Col­onel Gaddafi’s son, Saif Al Islam, applied for a visa to come to Bri­tain. I/Ops planted a com­pletely false story in The Sunday Tele­graph that he was involved in money laun­der­ing with Iran and, lo and behold, MI5 had the per­fect excuse to deny him a visa. Al Islam sub­sequently sued the news­pa­per which, faced with Shayler’s evid­ence, settled out of court.

A few months ago the ex-head of MI6, Sir Richard Dear­love, gave a talk at the LSE about the intel­li­gence agen­cies and the media. I went along to have a laugh, and was gra­ciously allowed to ask a ques­tion. Nat­ur­ally I raised the issue of I/Ops, its rela­tion­ship with the media, and whether such a role was accept­able in a mod­ern democracy.

In the con­text of the talk, what could have been more per­tin­ent? How­ever, Dear­love declined to answer. In fact, he went so far as to say that such a mat­ter was “within the ring of secrecy”. At which point a journ­al­ist from a pres­ti­gi­ous national news­pa­per who was sit­ting next to me, turned and said glee­fully that this at last proved that I/Ops exis­ted. Grat­i­fy­ing as this was, I shall reit­er­ate my ques­tion: is the role of I/Ops accept­able in a mod­ern demo­cracy, where we are sup­posed to enjoy free­dom of inform­a­tion, trans­par­ency and account­ab­il­ity from the powers-that-be?

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