Guardian article: the role of the spies in the UK

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:

Mark_KennedyThe 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.

Acpo_logoIt 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?

Climate_camp_and_policeThe 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.

The Age of Transparency?

Black_sheep_text?Well, this is an inter­est­ing case in the US.  Thomas Drake, a former senior exec­ut­ive at the Amer­ican National Secur­ity Agency (NSA), the US elec­tronic eaves­drop­ping organ­isa­tion, is being charged under the 1917 US Espi­on­age Act for allegedly dis­clos­ing clas­si­fied inform­a­tion to a journ­al­ist about, gasp, the mis­man­age­ment, fin­an­cial waste and dubi­ous legal prac­tices of the spy­ing organ­isa­tion.  These days it might actu­ally be more news­worthy if the oppos­ite were to be disclosed.…

How­ever, under the terms of the Espi­on­age Act, this des­ig­nates him an enemy of the Amer­ican people on a par with bona fide trait­ors of the past who sold secrets to hos­tile powers dur­ing the Cold War.

It strikes me that someone who reports mal­prac­tice, mis­takes and under-performance on the part of his (secret­ive) employ­ers might pos­sibly be someone who still has the motiv­a­tion to try to make a dif­fer­ence, to do their best to pro­tect people and serve the genu­ine interests of the whole coun­try.  Should such people be pro­sec­uted or should they be pro­tec­ted with a legal chan­nel to disclosure? 

Thomas Drake does not sound like a spy who should be pro­sec­uted for espi­on­age under the USA’s anti­quated act, he sounds on the avail­able inform­a­tion like a whis­tleblower, pure and simple.  But that won’t neces­sar­ily save him leg­ally, and he is appar­ently facing dec­ades in prison.  Pres­id­ent Obama, who made such a song and dance about trans­par­ency and account­ab­il­ity dur­ing his elec­tion cam­paign, has an even more egre­gious track record than pre­vi­ous pres­id­ents for hunt­ing down whis­tleblowers — the new “insider threat”.

This, of course, chimes with the Brit­ish exper­i­ence.  So-called left-of-centre polit­ical can­did­ates get elec­ted on a plat­form of trans­par­ency, free­dom of inform­a­tion, and an eth­ical for­eign policy (think Blair as well as Obama), and promptly renege on all their cam­paign prom­ises once they grab the top job. 

In fact, I would sug­gest that the more pro­fessedly “lib­eral” the  gov­ern­ment, the more it feels empowered to shred civil liber­ties.  If a right-wing gov­ern­ment were to attack basic demo­cratic freedoms in such a way, the offi­cial oppos­i­tion (Democrats/Labour Party/whatever) would be obliged to make a show of oppos­ing the meas­ures to keep their core voters sweet.  Once they’re in power, of course, they can do what they want.

One stark example of this occured dur­ing the passing of the Brit­ish Offi­cial Secrets Act (1989) which, as I’ve writ­ten before, was spe­cific­ally designed to gag whis­tleblowers and pen­al­ise journ­al­ists.  The old OSA (1911) was already in place to deal with real traitors.

And who voted against the passing of this act in 1989?  Yes, you’ve guessed it, all those who then went on to become Labour gov­ern­ment min­is­ters after the 1997 Labour elec­tion land­slide — Tony Blair, Jack Straw, the late Robin Cook and a scrum of other rather for­get­table min­is­ters and Attor­ney Gen­er­als.….  And yet it was this very New Labour gov­ern­ment in the UK that most often used the OSA to halt the free-flow of inform­a­tion and the dis­clos­ures of informed whis­tleblowers.  Obama has indeed learnt well.

It’s an oldie but still a goodie: as one of my law­yers once wryly told me, it doesn’t mat­ter whom you vote for, the gov­ern­ment still gets in.….

Can the product of bugs be used as court evidence in the UK?

Black_sheep?_textAn inter­est­ing story on Chan­nel 4 TV news today: four Lon­don police officers are being pro­sec­uted for beat­ing up Babar Ahmad in 2003 while arrest­ing him on sus­pi­cion of ter­ror­ism charges.  And it turns out that the key evid­ence for the pro­sec­u­tion comes not from Ahmad’s com­plaint, nor from pho­to­graphs of his injur­ies, but from the product of an eaves­drop­ping device, more com­monly known as a bug, planted in his home by the UK Secur­ity Ser­vice, MI5.

It’s inter­est­ing in itself that MI5 has released this inform­a­tion for court pro­ceed­ings against Met counter-terrorism officers.  I shall res­ist spec­u­lat­ing now, but shall be watch­ing devel­op­ments with interest.

But the point I want to make quickly today is about the use of inter­cept mater­ial as legal evid­ence in UK courts.  This can poten­tially be cru­cial for law­yers when speak­ing to their cli­ents, journ­al­ists who wish to pro­tect their sources, polticial act­iv­ists, and those who simply wish to pro­tect their inher­ent right to pri­vacy as the encroach­ing elec­tronic sur­veil­lance state con­tin­ues to swell.

It can also be poten­tially use­ful inform­a­tion for MPs talk­ing to their con­stitu­ents.  Indeed, return­ing to the years-long case of Babar Ahmad, there was a media furore in 2008 when it was revealed that the Met had author­ised the bug­ging of his con­ver­sa­tions with his MP Sadiq Khan dur­ing prison visits.  

And who was the com­mand­ing officer who author­ised this?  Step for­ward former Met Counter Ter­ror­ism supremo, Andy Hay­man, that much esteemed defender of Brit­ish civil liber­ties who recently sug­ges­ted “dawn raids” and “snatch squads ” be used against polit­ical activists.

Unlike most other west­ern coun­tries, the UK does not allow the use of tele­phone inter­cept as evid­ence in a court of law.  As I’ve writ­ten before, it’s a hangover from the cold war spy­ing game.  MI5 has tra­di­tion­ally seen phone taps as a source of intel­li­gence, not evid­ence, des­pite the fact that much of their work is notion­ally more evid­en­tially based in the 21st cen­tury.  It also still remains a sub­ject of debate and a fiercely fought rear­gard action by the spies them­selves, who claim telecheck is a “sens­it­ive technique”. 

As if we don’t all know that our phones can be bugged.….

How­ever, eaves­drop­ping devices that are planted in your prop­erty — your home, your office, even your car — can indeed pro­duce evid­ence that can be used against you in a court of law.   All this requires a Home Office War­rant (HOW) to make it legal, but Home Sec­ret­ar­ies are tra­di­tion­ally reluct­ant to refuse a request in the interests of “national secur­ity”.  Moreover, if the owner of the prop­erty agrees to a bug, even without a HOW, they can be leg­ally used.  So if you live in ren­ted accom­mod­a­tion, befriend your landlord!

Not a lot of people know all that — but we should. 

How the Light Gets In — speaking in Hay-on-Wye, May 30 2011

How_the_light_gets_in_Banner I did two ses­sions at Hay-on-Wye philo­sophy and music fest­ival — How the Light gets In in May 2011.

The first was a debate called “An Age of Trans­par­ency” with neo-conservative com­ment­ator Douglas Mur­ray, and philo­sopher Nigel Warburton.

The second was my talk about “Spies, Lies, and Life on the Run”.

Here’s a link to a video of my talk.

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