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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