Here’s the text of an article I wrote for The Guardian a while ago, where I suggest we need a fresh perspective and some clear thinking on the role of the spies in the UK.
Worth reiterating, following the pre-emptive arrest of protesters:
The cascade of revelations about secret policemen, starting with PC Mark Kennedy/environmental activist “Mark Stone”, has highlighted the identity crisis afflicting the British security establishment. Private undercover police units are having their James Bond moment – cider shaken, not stirred – while MI5 has become ever more plod-like, yet without the accompanying oversight. How has this happened to our democracy without any public debate?
From the late 19th century the Metropolitan Police Special Branch investigated terrorism while MI5, established in 1909, was a counter-intelligence unit focusing on espionage and political “subversion”. The switch began in 1992 when Dame Stella Rimington, then head of MI5, effected a Whitehall coup and stole primacy for investigating Irish terrorism from the Met. As a result MI5 magically discovered that subversion was not such a threat after all – this revelation only three years after the Berlin Wall came down – and transferred all its staff over to the new, sexy counter-terrorism sections. Since then, MI5 has been eagerly building its counter-terrorism empire, despite this being more obviously evidential police work.
Special Branch was relegated to a supporting role, dabbling in organised crime and animal rights activists, but not terribly excited about either. Its prestige had been seriously tarnished. It also had a group of experienced undercover cops – known then as the Special Duties Section – with time on their hands.
It should therefore come as little surprise that Acpo, the private limited company comprising senior police officers across the country, came up with the brilliant idea of using this skill-set against UK “domestic extremists”. Acpo set up the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU). This first focused primarily on animal rights activists, but mission creep rapidly set in and the unit’s role expanded into peaceful protest groups. When this unaccountable, Stasi-like unit was revealed it rightly caused an outcry, especially as the term “domestic extremist” is not recognised under UK law, and cannot legally be used as justification to aggressively invade an individual’s privacy because of their legitimate political beliefs and activism. So, plod has become increasingly spooky. What of the spooks?
As I mentioned, they have been aggressively hoovering up the prestigious counter-terrorism work. But, despite what the Americans have hysterically asserted since 9/11, terrorism is not some unique form of “eviltude”. It is a crime – a hideous, shocking one, but still a crime that should be investigated, with evidence gathered, due process applied and the suspects on trial in front of a jury.
A mature democracy that respects human rights and the rule of law should not intern suspects or render them to secret prisons and torture them for years. And yet this is precisely what our spooks are now allegedly doing – particularly when colluding with their US counterparts.
Also, MI5 and MI6 operate outside any realistic democratic oversight and control. The remit of the intelligence and security committee in parliament only covers the policy, administration and finance of the spies. Since the committee’s inception in 1994 it has repeatedly failed to meaningfully address more serious questions about the spies’ role. The spooks are effectively above the law, while at the same time protected by the draconian Official Secrets Act. This makes the abuses of the NPOIU seem almost quaint. So what to do? A good first step might be to have an informed discussion about the realistic threats to the UK. The police and spies huddle behind the protective phrase “national security”. But what does this mean?
The core idea should be safeguarding the nation’s integrity. A group of well-meaning environmental protesters should not even be on the radar. And, no matter how awful, the occasional terrorist attack is not an existential threat to the fabric of the nation in the way of, say, the planned Nazi invasion in 1940. Nor is it even close to the sustained bombing of government, infrastructure and military targets by the Provisional IRA in the 70s-90s.
Once we understand the real threats, we as a nation can discuss the steps to take to protect ourselves; what measures should be taken and what liberties occasionally and legally compromised, and what democratic accountability exists to ensure that the security forces do not exceed their remit and work within the law.