For the first time in 100 years "C", the head of the UK foreign intelligence service SIS (commonly known as MI6) has gone public.
Former career diplomat Sir John Sawers (he of Speedo fame) yesterday made a speech to the UK Society of Editors in what appeared to be a professionally diplomatic rear-guard action in response to a number of hot media topics at the moment.
Choosing both his audience wisely and his words carefully, he hit on three key areas:
Torture: Legal cases are currently going through UK courts on behalf of British victims of torture, in which MI5 and MI6 intelligence officers are alleged to have been complicit. The Metropolitan Police are currently investigating a number of cases. Over the last week, a British military training manual on "enhanced" interrogation techniques has also been made public. However, Sawers unblushingly states that MI6 abides by UK and international law and would never get involved, even tangentially, in torture cases. In fact, he goes on to assert that the UK intelligence agencies are training the rest of the world in human rights in this regard.
Whistleblowing: In the week following the latest Wikileaks coup – the Iraq War Diaries, comprising nearly 400,000 documents detailing the everyday horror of life in occupied Iraq, including war crimes such as murder, rape and torture committed by both US and UK forces – Sawers states that secrecy is not a dirty word: the intelligence agencies need to have the confidence that whistleblowers will not emerge to in order to guard agent and staff identities, as well as maintaining the confidence of their international intelligence partners that their (dirty?) secrets will remain, um, secret. One presumes he is advocating against the exposure of war crimes and justice for the victims.
This, one also presumes, is the justification for US politicians who propose cyber-attacks against Wikileaks and the declaration by some US political insiders that Julian Assange, spokesman of the organisation, should be treated as an unlawfully designated "unlawful combatant", subject to the full rigour of extra-judicial US power, up to and including assassination.
Spurious media claims of unverified "damage" are the hoary old chestnuts always dragged out in whistleblower cases. After Wikileaks released its Afghan War Blog in July, government and intelligence commentators made apocalyptic predictions that the leak had put military and agent lives at risk. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has since gone on the record to admit that this was simply not true.
During the Shayler whistleblowing case a decade ago, the government repeatedly tried to assert that agent lives had been put at risk, and yet the formal judgement at the end of his trial stated that this was absolutely not the case. And again, with the recent Wikileaks Iraq War Blog, government sources are using the same old mantra. When will they realise that they can only cry wolf so many times and get away with it? And when will the journalists regurgitating this spin wake up to the fact they are being played?
Accountability: Sawers goes on to describe the mechanisms of accountability, such as they are. He accurately states, as I have previously described ad nauseam, that under the 1994 Intelligence Services Act, he is notionally responsible to his political "master", the Foreign Secretary, who has to clear in advance any legally dubious foreign operations (up to and including murder – the fabled “licence to kill” is not fiction, as you can see here).
The 1994 ISA also established the Prime Minister's Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) in Parliament, which many commentators seem to believe offers meaningful oversight of the spies. However, as I have detailed before, this is a mere fig leaf to real accountability: the ISC can only investigate issues of policy, finance and administration of the spy agencies. Disclosures relating to crime, operational incompetence or involvement in torture fall outside its remit.
But what happens if intelligence officers decide to operate beyond this framework? How would ministers or the ISC ever know? Other spy masters have successfully lied to their political masters in the past, after all.
Sir John has the gall to say that, if an operation is not cleared by the Foreign Secretary, it does not proceed. But what about the Gadaffi Plot way back in 1996, when MI6 was sponsoring a group of Islamic extremist terrorists in Libya to try to assassinate Colonel Gadaffi without, it has been asserted, the prior written approval of the then-Foreign secretary, Tory politician Malcom Rifkind? This was reported extensively, including in this article by Mark Thomas in the New Statesman. What happens if rogue MI6 officers blithely side-step this notional accountability – because they can, because they know they will get away with it – because they have in the past?
In the interests of justice, UK and international law, and accountability, perhaps a new Conservative/Coalition government should now reassess its approach to intelligence whistleblowers generally, and re-examine this specific disclosure about Libya, which has been backed up by international intelligence sources, both US and French, in order to achieve some sort of closure for the innocent victims in Libya of this MI6-funded terrorist attack? And it is finally time to hold the perpetrators to account – PT16, Richard Bartlett, and PT16B, David Watson, who were the senior officers in MI6 responsible for the murder plot.
As civilised countries, we need to rethink our approach to the issue of whistleblowing. Lies, spin, prosecutions and thuggish threats of assassination are beneath us as societies that notionally adhere to the principles of democracy. If we can only realistically hope that the actions of our governments, military forces, and intelligence agencies are transparent and accountable via whistleblowers, then we need to ensure that these people are legally protected and that their voices are heard clearly.