Spies need more oversight, not new powers

Pub­lished on www​.polit​ics​.co​.uk, and Huff­ing­ton Post UK.

Fol­low­ing the awful murder of Drum­mer Lee Rigby in Wool­wich last week, the polit­ical securo­crats who claim to rep­res­ent the interests of the Brit­ish intel­li­gence ser­vices have swung into action, demand­ing yet fur­ther sur­veil­lance powers for MI5 and MI6 “in order to pre­vent future Woolwich-style attacks”.

As I’ve writ­ten before, it was heart­en­ing that the UK Prime Min­is­ter said in the after­math of the attack that there would be no knee-jerk secur­ity reac­tion. How­ever, that has not deterred cer­tain intel­li­gence sock-puppets from polit­ical oppor­tunism — they stridently call for the resur­rec­tion of the draft Com­mu­nic­a­tions Data Bill that was earlier this year kicked into the long grass. If the hawks are suc­cess­ful, the new law would have implic­a­tions not only for our freedoms at home, but also for our policy and stand­ing abroad.

Recently the civil liber­ties camp acquired a sur­pris­ing ally in this debate, with MI5 unex­pec­tedly enter­ing the fray.  And rightly so. There is abso­lutely no need for this new legis­la­tion, the requis­ite powers are already in place. Senior secur­ity sources have argued that those cit­ing the Wool­wich attack to pro­mote the snoop­ers’ charter are using a “cheap argu­ment”.

As I said in this recent BBC radio inter­view, all the neces­sary laws are already in place for MI5 either to pass­ively mon­itor or aggress­ively invest­ig­ate per­sons of interest under the ori­ginal terms of IOCA (1985) and updated in the Reg­u­la­tion of Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Act (RIPA 2000).

There now appears to be little doubt that the two Wool­wich sus­pects were well and truly on the MI5 radar. It has been repor­ted that they had been tar­gets for at least 8 years and that Michael Ade­bolajo had been approached to work as an agent by MI5 as recently as 6 months ago.

One of his friends, Abu Nusay­bah, recor­ded an inter­view for BBC’s News­night pro­gramme last week, only to be arres­ted by counter-terrorism police imme­di­ately after­wards. He stated that Ade­bolajo had been tor­tured and threatened with rape after his arrest in Kenya en route to Somalia, and that this treat­ment may have flipped him into more viol­ent action. Indeed, the tale gets ever mur­kier, with reports yes­ter­day stat­ing that Ade­bolajo was snatched by the SAS in Kenya on the orders of MI5.

Other inform­a­tion has since been released by the organ­isa­tion Cage­Pris­on­ers indic­at­ing that Adebolajo’s fam­ily and friends had also been har­rassed to pres­sur­ize him into report­ing to MI5.

All of which obvi­ates the early claims that Ade­bolajo was either a “lone wolf” or a low-priority tar­get. It cer­tainly indic­ates to me that MI5 will have at the very least been mon­it­or­ing Adebolajo’s com­mu­nic­a­tions data, espe­cially if they were try­ing to recruit him as a source. If that indeed turns out to have been the case, then without doubt MI5 will also have been inter­cept­ing the con­tent of his com­mu­nic­a­tions, to under­stand his think­ing and assess his access. Any­thing less would have been slip­shod — a derel­ic­tion of duty — and all this could and should have been done under the exist­ing terms of RIPA.

So what are the chances of some real over­sight or answers?

If we’re talk­ing about an inde­pend­ent inquiry, the chances are slim: the Inquir­ies Act (2005) passed little noticed into law, but it means that the gov­ern­ment and the depart­ment under invest­ig­a­tion can pretty much determ­ine the scope and terms of the inquiry to which they are subject.

How­ever, might we nail the flag of hope to the mast of the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee of Par­lia­ment (ISC) — the com­mit­tee tasked with over­see­ing the work of the UK intel­li­gence agen­cies? The new DG of MI5, Andrew Parker, has already sub­mit­ted a writ­ten report about Wool­wich and will be giv­ing evid­ence to the ISC in per­son next week about whether MI5 missed some vital intel­li­gence or dropped the ball.

Th ISC of Par­lia­ment was estab­lished as part of the Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act (1994) — the law that finally brought MI6 and GCHQ under the umbrella of notional demo­cratic over­sight. MI5 had already come into the legal fold with the Secur­ity Ser­vice Act (1989).

As I have writ­ten before, ini­tially the ISC was a demo­cratic fig-leaf — its mem­bers were appoin­ted by the PM not Par­lia­ment, it repor­ted dir­ectly to the PM, and its remit only covered the policy, fin­ance and admin­is­tra­tion of the UK’s intel­li­gence agencies.

Until this year the ISC could not invest­ig­ate oper­a­tional mat­ters, nor could it demand to see doc­u­ments or ques­tion top spooks under oath. Indeed, it has been well repor­ted that senior spies and police have long evaded mean­ing­ful scru­tiny by being “eco­nom­ical with the truth”.

Former MI5 DG Sir Stephen Lander in 2001 said “I blanche at some of the things I declined to tell the com­mit­tee early on”; a more recent DG, Sir Jonathan Evans, had to admit in 2008 that MI5 had lied about its involve­ment in tor­ture; and Lord Blair, former Com­mis­sioner of the Met­ro­pol­itan Police, had to apo­lo­gise in 2008 for mis­lead­ing the ISC about the num­ber of thwarted ter­ror­ist attacks on his watch.

How­ever the cur­rent Chair of the ISC, Sir Mal­com Rif­kind, has pur­sued a more mus­cu­lar over­sight role. And it seems he has at least won some battles. The one good ele­ment to have come out of the con­ten­tious Justice and Secur­ity Act (2013) appears to be that the ISC has more dir­ect account­ab­il­ity to Par­lia­ment, rather than just to the PM (the devil is expressed in the detail: the ISC is now “of” Par­lia­ment, rather than “in” Parliament…).

Some­what more per­tin­ently, the ISC can now invest­ig­ate oper­a­tional mat­ters, demand papers and wit­nesses, and it appears they now have a spe­cial invest­ig­ator who can go and rum­mage around the MI5 Registry for information.

It remains to be seen how effect­ive the ISC will real­ist­ic­ally be in hold­ing the intel­li­gence agen­cies to account, even with these new powers. How­ever, Sir Mal­colm Rif­kind has good reason to know how slip­pery the spies can be — after all, he was the For­eign Sec­ret­ary in 1995/6, the years when MI6 was fund­ing Al Qaeda asso­ci­ates to assas­sin­ate Col­onel Gad­dafi of Libya.  The attack went wrong, inno­cent people were killed and, cru­cially, it was illegal under UK law, as MI6 had not reques­ted the prior writ­ten per­mis­sion for such a plot from the For­eign Sec­ret­ary, as required under Sec­tion 7(1) of the afore­men­tioned ISA (1994). Rif­kind has always claimed that he was not told about the plot by MI6.

So, in the interests of justice let us hope that the Rif­kind and the other mem­bers of the ISC fully exer­cise their powers and that MI5’s new DG, Andrew Parker is some­what more frank about the work of his agency than his pre­de­cessors have been. It is only through greater hon­esty and account­ab­il­ity that our intel­li­gence agen­cies can learn from the mis­takes of the past and bet­ter pro­tect our coun­try in the future.

MI6 “ghost money”

Here’s the full art­icle about MI6 “ghost money”, now also pub­lished at the Huff­ing­ton Post UK:

Afghan Pres­id­ent Hamid Kar­zai, has recently been cri­ti­cised for tak­ing “ghost money” from the CIA and MI6. The sums are inev­it­ably unknown, for the usual reas­ons of “national secur­ity”, but are estim­ated to have been tens of mil­lions of dol­lars. While this is nowhere near the eyebleed­ing $12 bil­lion shipped over to Iraq on pal­lets in the wake of the inva­sion a dec­ade ago, it is still a sig­ni­fic­ant amount.

And how has this money been spent?  Cer­tainly not on social pro­jects or rebuild­ing ini­ti­at­ives.  Rather, the report­ing indic­ates, the money has been fun­nelled to Karzai’s cronies as bribes in a cor­rupt attempt to buy influ­ence in the country.

None of this sur­prises me. MI6 has a long and ignoble his­tory of try­ing to buy influ­ence in coun­tries of interest.  In 1995/96 it fun­ded a “ragtag group of Islamic extrem­ists”, headed up by a Libyan mil­it­ary intel­li­gence officer, in an illegal attempt to try to assas­sin­ate Col­onel Gad­dafi.  The attack went wrong and inno­cent people were killed.  When this scan­dal was exposed, it caused an outcry.

Yet a mere 15 years later, MI6 and the CIA were back in Libya, provid­ing sup­port to the same “rebels”, who this time suc­ceeded in cap­tur­ing, tor­tur­ing and killing Gad­dafi, while plunging Libya into appar­ently end­less interne­cine war. This time around there was little inter­na­tional out­cry, as the world’s media por­trayed this aggress­ive inter­fer­ence in a sov­er­eign state as “human­it­arian relief”.

And we also see the same in Syria now, as the CIA and MI6 are already provid­ing train­ing and com­mu­nic­a­tions sup­port to the rebels — many of whom, par­tic­u­larly the Al Nusra fac­tion in con­trol of the oil-rich north-east of Syria are in fact allied with Al Qaeda in Iraq.  So in some coun­tries the UK and USA use drones to tar­get and murder “mil­it­ants” (plus vil­la­gers, wed­ding parties and other assor­ted inno­cents), while in oth­ers they back ideo­lo­gic­ally sim­ilar groups.

Recently we have also seen the West­ern media mak­ing unveri­fied claims that the Syr­ian régime is using chem­ical weapons against its own people, and our politi­cians leap­ing on these asser­tions as jus­ti­fic­a­tion for openly provid­ing weapons to the insur­gents too. Thank­fully, other reports are now emer­ging that indic­ate it was the rebels them­selves who have been using sarin gas against the people. This may halt the rush to arms, but not doubt other sup­port will con­tinue to be offered by the West to these war criminals.

So how is MI6 secretly spend­ing UK tax­pay­ers’ money in Afgh­anistan? Accord­ing to west­ern media report­ing, it is being used to prop up war­lords and cor­rupt offi­cials. This is deeply unpop­u­lar amongst the Afghan people, lead­ing to the danger of increas­ing sup­port for a resur­gent Taliban.

There is also a sig­ni­fic­ant over­lap between the cor­rupt polit­ical estab­lish­ment and the illegal drug trade, up to and includ­ing the president’s late brother, Ahmed Wali Kar­zai.  So, another unin­ten­tional con­sequence may be that some of this unac­count­able ghost money is prop­ping up the drug trade.

Afgh­anistan is the world’s lead­ing pro­du­cer of heroin, and the UN reports that poppy growth has increased dra­mat­ic­ally. Indeed, the UN estim­ates that acre­age under poppy growth in Afgh­anistan has tripled over the last 7 years.  The value of the drug trade to the Afghan war­lords is now estim­ated to be in the region of $700 mil­lion per year.  You can buy a lot of Kalash­nikovs with that.

So on the one hand we have our west­ern gov­ern­ments bank­rupt­ing them­selves to fight the “war on ter­ror”, break­ing inter­na­tional laws and mur­der­ing mil­lions of inno­cent people across North Africa, the Middle East, and cent­ral Asia while at the same time shred­ding what remain of our hard-won civil liber­ties at home.

On the other hand, we appar­ently have MI6 and the CIA secretly bank­rolling the very people in Afgh­anistan who pro­duce 90% of the world’s heroin. And then, of course, more scarce resources can be spent on fight­ing the failed “war on drugs” and yet another pre­text is used to shred our civil liberties.

This is a luc­rat­ive eco­nomic model for the bur­geon­ing military-security complex.

How­ever, it is a lose-lose scen­ario for the rest of us.

RT article about MI6’s Afghan “ghost money”

Here’s a link to my new art­icle, pub­lished exclus­ively today on RT’s Op-Edge news site.

I dis­cuss the recent news that MI6, in addi­tion to the CIA, has been pay­ing “ghost money” to the polit­ical estab­lish­ment in Afgh­anistan, other examples of such med­dling, and the prob­able unin­ten­ded consequences.

Interview on the Abby Martin show, RT America

My recent inter­view on “Break­ing the Set”, Abby Martin’s show on RT Amer­ica, dis­cuss­ing all things whis­tleblow­ing:

Secret Agent Turns Whis­tleblower from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

The Real News Network Interview on Whistleblowing

Part One of my recent inter­view on the excel­lent, inde­pend­ent and fear­less Real News Net­work:

Libya, MI6, and torture — interview on Press TV

Libya, MI6, tor­ture, and more happy sub­jects dis­cussed recently on “Africa Today” on Press TV

The pro­gramme was inter­est­ing, informed and bal­anced.  Do have a watch:

Libyans caught between a rock and a hard place

This art­icle in today’s New York Times, par­tic­u­larly these fol­low­ing two para­graphs, sent a shiver down my spine for the fate of the Libyan people:

Abdelhakim-Belhaj“The most power­ful mil­it­ary leader is now Abdel Hakim Bel­haj, the former leader of a hard-line group once believed to be aligned with Al Qaeda.The grow­ing influ­ence of Islam­ists in Libya raises hard ques­tions about the ulti­mate char­ac­ter of the gov­ern­ment and soci­ety that will rise in place of Col. Muam­mar el-Qaddafi’s autocracy.….

.…Mr. Bel­haj has become so much an insider lately that he is seek­ing to unseat Mah­moud Jib­ril, the American-trained eco­nom­ist who is the nom­inal prime min­is­ter of the interim gov­ern­ment, after Mr. Jib­ril obliquely cri­ti­cized the Islamists.”

The Liby­ans, finally free of Gaddafi’s 42-year dic­tat­or­ship, now seem faced with a choice between an Islam­ist fac­tion that has stated pub­licly that it wants to base the new con­sti­tu­tion on Sharia — a state­ment that must have caused a few ripples amongst Libya’s edu­cated and rel­at­ively  eman­cip­ated women — or a new gov­ern­ment headed up by an American-trained economist. 

Shock_DoctrineAnd we all know what hap­pens to coun­tries when such eco­nom­ists move in: asset strip­ping, the syphon­ing off of the national wealth to transna­tional mega-corps, and a plunge in the people’s liv­ing stand­ards.  If you think this sounds extreme, then do get your hands on a copy of Naomi Klein’s excel­lent “Shock Doc­trine” — required read­ing for any­one who wants to truly under­stand the grow­ing global fin­an­cial crisis.

Of course, this would be an ideal out­come for the US, UK and other west­ern forces who inter­vened in Libya. 

Mr Bel­haj is, of course, another mat­ter.  Not only would an Islam­ist Libya be a poten­tially dan­ger­ous res­ult for the West, but should Bel­haj come to power he is likely to be some­what hos­tile to US and par­tic­u­larly Brit­ish interests.  

Why?  Well, Abdul Hakim Bel­haj has form.  He was a lead­ing light in the Libyan Islamic Fight­ing Group, a ter­ror­ist organ­isa­tion which bought into the ideo­logy of “Al Qaeda” and which had made many attempts to depose or assas­sin­ate Gad­dafi, some­times with the fin­an­cial back­ing of the Brit­ish spies, most not­ably in the failed assas­sin­a­tion plot of 1996.

Of course, after 9/11 and Gaddafi’s rap­proche­ment with the West, this col­lab­or­a­tion was all air-brushed out of his­tory — to such an extent that in 2004 MI6 was instru­mental in  kid­nap­ping Bel­haj, with the say-so of the CIA, and “extraordin­ar­ily ren­der­ing” him to Tripoli in 2004, where he suffered 6 years’ tor­ture at the hands of Libya’s bru­tal intel­li­gences ser­vices.  After this, I doubt if he would be minded to work too closely with UK companies.

So I’m will­ing to bet that there is more behind-the-scenes med­dling from our spooks, to ensure the ascend­ency of Jib­ril in the new gov­ern­ment.  Which will be great for West­ern busi­ness, but not so great for the poor Libyans.….

Spy documents found in Libya reveal more British double dealing

Musa_KousaA cache of highly clas­si­fied intel­li­gence doc­u­ments was recently dis­covered in the aban­doned offices of former Libyan spy mas­ter, For­eign Min­is­ter and high-profile defector, Musa Kusa.

These doc­u­ments have over the last couple of weeks provided a fas­cin­at­ing insight into the grow­ing links in the last dec­ade between the former UK Labour gov­ern­ment, par­tic­u­larly Tony Blair, and the Gad­dafi régime.  They have dis­played in oily detail the degree of toady­ing that the Blair gov­ern­ment was pre­pared to coun­ten­ance, not only to secure luc­rat­ive busi­ness con­tracts but also to gloss over embar­rass­ing epis­odes such as Lock­er­bie and the false flag MI6-backed 1996 assas­sin­a­tion plot against Gaddafi.

These doc­u­ments have also appar­ently revealed dir­ect involve­ment by MI6 in the “extraordin­ary rendi­tion” to Tripoli and tor­ture of two Liby­ans.  Iron­ic­ally it has been repor­ted that they were wanted for being mem­bers of the Libyan Islamic Fight­ing Group, the very organ­isa­tion that MI6 had backed in its failed 1996 coup.

The sec­u­lar dic­tat­or­ship of Col Gad­dafi always had much to fear from Islam­ist extrem­ism, so it is per­haps unsur­pris­ing that, after Blair’s notori­ous “deal in the desert” in 2004, the Gad­dafi régime used its con­nec­tions with MI6 and the CIA to hunt down its enemies.  And, as we have all been end­lessly told, the rules changed after 9/11…

The tor­ture  vic­tims, one of whom is now a mil­it­ary com­mander of the rebel Libyan forces, are now con­sid­er­ing suing the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment.  Jack Straw, the For­eign Sec­ret­ary at the time, has tried to shuffle off any blame, stat­ing that he could not be expec­ted to know everything that MI6 does.

Well, er, no — part of the job descrip­tion of For­eign Sec­ret­ary is indeed to over­see the work of MI6 and hold it to demo­cratic account­ab­il­ity, espe­cially about such ser­i­ous policy issues as “extraordin­ary rendi­tion” and tor­ture.  Such oper­a­tions would indeed need the min­is­terial sign-off to be legal under the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act.

There has been just so much hot air from the cur­rent gov­ern­ment about how the Gib­son Tor­ture Inquiry will get to the bot­tom of these cases, but we all know how tooth­less such inquir­ies will be, cir­cum­scribed as they are by the terms of the Inquir­ies Act 2005.  We also know that Sir Peter Gib­son him­self has for years been “embed­ded” within the Brit­ish intel­li­gence com­munity and is hardly likely to hold the spies mean­ing­fully to account.

MoS_Shayler_11_09_2011So I was par­tic­u­larly intrigued to hear that the the cache of doc­u­ments showed the case of David Shayler, the intel­li­gence whis­tleblower who revealed the 1996 Gad­dafi assas­sin­a­tion plot and went to prison twice for doing so, first in France in 1998 and then in the UK in 2002, was still a sub­ject of dis­cus­sion between the Libyan and UK gov­ern­ments in 2007. And, as I have writ­ten before, as late as 2009 it was obvi­ous that this case was still used by the Liby­ans for lever­age, cer­tainly when it came to the tit-for-tat nego­ti­ations around case of the murder in Lon­don out­side the Libyan Embassy of WPC Yvonne Fletcher in 1984.

Of course, way back in 1998, the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment was all too ready to crush the whis­tleblower rather than invest­ig­ate the dis­clos­ures and hold the spies to account for their illegal and reck­less acts.  I have always felt that this was a fail­ure of demo­cracy, that it ser­i­ously under­mined the future work and repu­ta­tion of the spies them­selves, and par­tic­u­larly that it was such a shame for the fate of the PBW (poor bloody whis­tleblower).

But it now appears that the Brit­ish intel­li­gence community’s sense of omni­po­tence and of being above the law has come back to bite them.  How else explain their slide into a group-think men­tal­ity that par­ti­cip­ates in “extraordin­ary rendi­tion” and tor­ture?

One has to won­der if wily old Musa Kusa left this cache of doc­u­ments behind in his aban­doned offices as an “insur­ance policy”, just in case his defec­tion to the UK were not to be as com­fort­able as he had hoped — and we now know that he soon fled to Qatar after he had been ques­tioned about the Lock­er­bie case.

But whether an hon­est mis­take or cun­ning power play, his actions have helped to shine a light into more dark corners of Brit­ish gov­ern­ment lies and double deal­ing vis a vis Libya.…

Lawyers challenge integrity of UK spy torture inquiry

Gareth_Peirce_1It was widely repor­ted today that a num­ber of well-respected Brit­ish law­yers and civil liber­ties organ­isa­tions are ques­tion­ing the integ­rity of the much-trumpeted inquiry into UK spy com­pli­city in torture.

And about time too.  One hopes this is all part of a wider strategy, not merely a defens­ive reac­tion to the usual power play on the part of the Brit­ish estab­lish­ment.  After all, it has been appar­ent from the start that the whole inquiry would be ques­tion­able when it was announced that Sir Peter Gib­son would be chair­ing the inquiry.

Gib­son has cer­tain form.  He was until recently the Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Com­mis­sioner — the very per­son who for the last five years has been invited into MI5, MI6 and GCHQ for cosy annual chats with care­fully selec­ted intel­li­gence officers (ie those who won’t rock the boat), to report back to the gov­ern­ment that demo­cratic over­sight was work­ing won­der­fully, and it was all A-OK in the spy organisations.

After these years of happy frat­ern­ising, when his name was put for­ward to invest­ig­ate poten­tial crim­inal com­pli­city in tor­ture on the part of the spies, he did the pub­licly decent thing and resigned as Com­mis­sioner to take up the post of chair of the Tor­ture Inquiry.

Well, we know the estab­lish­ment always like a safe pair of hands.…  and this safety has also been pretty much guar­an­teed by law for the last six years. 

Ever since the Inquir­ies Act 2005 was pushed through as law, with rel­at­ively little press aware­ness or par­lia­ment­ary oppos­i­tion, gov­ern­ment depart­ments and intel­li­gence agen­cies have pretty much been able to call the shots when it comes to the scope of sup­posedly inde­pend­ent inquiries.

Malcolm_RifkindInter­est­ingly, Tory grandee Sir Mal­colm Rif­kind, the former For­eign Sec­ret­ary who now chairs the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee, has also weighed in to the debate.  On BBC Radio 4’s Today pro­gramme he stated:

I can­not recol­lect an inquiry that’s been pro­posed to be so open as we’re hav­ing in this par­tic­u­lar case. When was the last time the head of MI5 and the head of MI6 – the prime min­is­ter has made quite clear – can be summoned to this inquiry and be required to give evid­ence?

This from the senior politi­cian who has always denied that he was offi­cially briefed about the illegal assas­sin­a­tion plot against Col­onel Gad­dafi of Libya in 1996; this from the man who is now call­ing for the arm­ing of the very same extrem­ists to topple Gad­dafi in the ongo­ing shambles that is the Libyan War; and this from the man who is also loudly call­ing for an exten­sion of the ISC’s legal powers so that it can demand access to wit­nesses and doc­u­ments from the spy organisations. 

No doubt my head will stop spin­ning in a day or two.…

UK Intelligence and Security Committee to be reformed?

The Guardian’s spook com­ment­ator extraordin­aire, Richard Norton-Taylor, has repor­ted that the cur­rent chair of the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee (ISC) in the UK Par­lia­ment, Sir Mal­colm Rif­kind, wants the com­mit­tee to finally grow a pair.  Well, those weren’t quite the words used in the Grauny, but they cer­tainly cap­ture the gist.

If Rifkind’s stated inten­tions are real­ised, the new-look ISC might well provide real, mean­ing­ful and demo­cratic over­sight for the first time in the 100-year his­tory of  the three key UK spy agen­cies — MI5, MI6, and GCHQ, not to men­tion the defence intel­li­gence staff, the joint intel­li­gence com­mit­tee and the new National Secur­ity Council .

FigleafFor many long years I have been dis­cuss­ing the woe­ful lack of real demo­cratic over­sight for the UK spies.  The privately-convened ISC, the demo­cratic fig-leaf estab­lished under the aegis of the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act (ISA), is appoin­ted by and answer­able only to the Prime Min­is­ter, with a remit only to look at fin­ance, policy and admin­is­tra­tion, and without the power to demand doc­u­ments or to cross-examine wit­nesses under oath.  Its annual reports are always heav­ily redac­ted and have become a joke amongst journalists.

When the remit of the ISC was being drawn up in the early 1990s, the spooks were apo­plectic that Par­lia­ment should have any form of over­sight what­so­ever.  From their per­spect­ive, it was bad enough at that point that the agen­cies were put on a legal foot­ing for the first time.  Spy think­ing then ran pretty much along the lines of “why on earth should they be answer­able to a bunch of here-today, gone-tomorrow politi­cians, who were leaky as hell and gos­siped to journ­al­ists all the time”?

So it says a great deal that the spooks breathed a huge, col­lect­ive sigh of relief when the ISC remit was finally enshrined in law in 1994.  They really had noth­ing to worry about.  I remem­ber, I was there at the time.

This has been borne out over the last 17 years.  Time and again the spies have got away with telling bare­faced lies to the ISC.  Or at the very least being “eco­nom­ical with the truth”, to use one of their favour­ite phrases.  Former DG of MI5, Sir Stephen Lander, has pub­licly said that “I blanche at some of the things I declined to tell the com­mit­tee [ISC] early on…”.  Not to men­tion the out­right lies told to the ISC over the years about issues like whis­tleblower testi­mony, tor­ture, and counter-terrorism meas­ures.

But these new devel­op­ments became yet more fas­cin­at­ing to me when I read that the cur­rent Chair of the ISC pro­pos­ing these reforms is no less than Sir Mal­colm Rif­kind, crusty Tory grandee and former Con­ser­vat­ive For­eign Min­is­ter in the mid-1990s.

For Sir Mal­colm was the For­eign Sec­ret­ary notion­ally in charge of MI6 when the intel­li­gence officers, PT16 and PT16/B, hatched the ill-judged Gad­dafi Plot when MI6 fun­ded a rag-tag group of Islamic extrem­ist ter­ror­ists in Libya to assas­sin­ate the Col­onel, the key dis­clos­ure made by David Shayler when he blew the whistle way back in the late 1990s.

Obvi­ously this assas­sin­a­tion attempt was highly reck­less in a very volat­ile part of the world; obvi­ously it was uneth­ical, and many inno­cent people were murdered in the attack; and obvi­ously it failed, lead­ing to the shaky rap­proche­ment with Gad­dafi over the last dec­ade.  Yet now we are see­ing the use of sim­ilar tac­tics in the cur­rent Libyan war (this time more openly) with MI6 officers being sent to help the rebels in Benghazi and our gov­ern­ment openly and shame­lessly call­ing for régime change.

Malcolm_RifkindBut most import­antly from a legal per­spect­ive, in 1996 the “Gad­dafi Plot” MI6 appar­ently did not apply for prior writ­ten per­mis­sion from Rif­kind — which they were leg­ally obliged to do under the terms of the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act (the very act that also estab­lished the ISC).  This is the fabled, but real, “licence to kill” — Sec­tion 7 of the ISA — which provides immunity to MI6 officers for illegal acts com­mit­ted abroad, if they have the requis­ite min­is­terial permission.

At the time, Rif­kind pub­licly stated that he had not been approached by MI6 to sanc­tion the plot when the BBC Pan­or­ama pro­gramme con­duc­ted a spe­cial invest­ig­a­tion, screened on 7 August 1997.  Rifkind’s state­ment was also repor­ted widely in the press over the years, includ­ing this New States­man art­icle by Mark Thomas in 2002.

That said, Rif­kind him­self wrote earlier this year in The Tele­graph that help should now be given to the Benghazi “rebels” — many of whom appear to be mem­bers of the very same group that tried to assas­sin­ate Gad­dafi with MI6’s help in 1996 — up to and includ­ing the pro­vi­sion of arms.  Rifkind’s view of the leg­al­it­ies now appear to be some­what more flex­ible, whatever his stated pos­i­tion was back in the 90s. 

Of course, then he was notion­ally in charge of MI6 and would have to take the rap for any polit­ical fall-out.  Now he can relax into the role of “quis cus­todiet ipsos cus­todes?”.  Such a relief.

I shall be watch­ing devel­op­ments around Rifkind’s pro­posed reforms with interest.

Libya: my enemy’s enemy is my friend, until he becomes my enemy again…

UK Prime Min­is­ter, David Cameron, reportedly made the start­ling state­ment recently that the mil­it­ary inter­ven­tion in Libya “unlike Iraq, is neces­sary, legal and right”. 

Blair_takes_the_oathWould it not be won­der­ful if he could take the next logical step towards joined-up think­ing and con­sider send­ing our esteemed Middle East Peace Envoy, a cer­tain Mr T Blair, over for a spot of por­ridge at the Inter­na­tional Crim­inal Court in The Hague?  After all, Cameron has now clearly implied that the Iraq war was “unne­ces­sary, illegal and wrong”.….

But back to Libya.  With the ongo­ing crisis — now war — much is being writ­ten about how the pre­vi­ous UK gov­ern­ment col­lab­or­ated with the Gad­dafi régime in the last dec­ade — while tacitly glossing over the last year of Coali­tion gov­ern­ment where, no doubt, sim­ilar levels of coöper­a­tion and back-slapping and money-grubbing were going on at the highest levels to ensure the con­tinu­ing flow of oil con­tracts to the UK.

But, yes, we should be dis­sect­ing the Labour/Gaddafi power bal­ance.  Gad­dafi had New Labour over the pro­ver­bial (oil) bar­rel from the late 1990s, when MI5 whis­tleblower David Shayler exposed the failed and illegal MI6 assas­sin­a­tion plot against Col­onel Gad­dafi, using as fall-guys a rag-tag group of Islamic extrem­ists.  The newly-elected Labour government’s knee-jerk response at the time was to believe the spook’s deni­als and cover-up for them.  Per­haps not so sur­pris­ing, as the gov­ern­ment min­is­ters of the day were uncom­fort­ably aware that the spies held files on them.  But this craven response did leave the gov­ern­ment pos­i­tion exposed, as Gad­dafi well knew.

MoS_G_Plot-credible_1997The CIA was fully cog­nis­ant of this failed plot at the time, as were the French intel­li­gence ser­vices.  The Gad­dafi Plot is once again being ref­er­enced in the media, includ­ing the Tele­graph, and a recent edi­tion of the Huff­ing­ton Post.  The details are still rel­ev­ant, as it appears that our enter­pris­ing spooks are yet again reach­ing out to a rag-tag group of rebels — primar­ily Islam­ists and the Senussi roy­al­ists based around Benghazi. 

The les­sons of the reck­less and ill-thought out Gad­dafi Plot were brushed under the car­pet, so his­tory may yet again be doomed to repeat itself.  Yes, Gad­dafi has been one of the biggest back­ers of ter­ror­ism ever, and yes he has bru­tal­ised parts of his own pop­u­la­tion, but if he were deposed how can the West be sure that those step­ping into the power vacuum would not be even more dangerous?

Musa_Kousa_Hillary_Clinton_NY_2010The Libyan gov­ern­ment con­tin­ued to use the 1996 MI6 assas­sin­a­tion plot as lever­age in its nego­ti­ations with the New Labour gov­ern­ment right up until (pub­licly at least) 2009.  Musa Kousa, the cur­rent For­eign Min­is­ter, played a key role through­out.  For many years Kousa was the head of the Libyan External Secur­ity Organsi­ation and was widely seen as the chief archi­tect of inter­na­tional Libyan-backed ter­ror­ism against the USA, the UK and France. 

Another appar­ent example of this moral black­mail caught my eye recently — this report in the Daily Mail.  Saif al-Islam Gad­dafi was afforded MI6-backed pro­tec­tion when he was finally allowed into the UK in Septem­ber 2002 to study at the LSE

The tim­ing was par­tic­u­larly inter­est­ing, as only months earlier Saif had won a libel case against the UK’s Sunday Tele­graph news­pa­per.  A grov­el­ling apo­logy was made by the news­pa­per, but Saif refrained from ask­ing for “exem­plary dam­ages” — which he would almost cer­tainly have won.  The res­ult­ing pay-off for this restraint appears to be that a mere five months later he was wel­comed into the UK with MI6-facilitated protection.

Saif’s rela­tions with the UK had not always been so rosy. As back­ground to this case, in 1995 the Sunday Tele­graph had fallen hook, line and sinker for a MI6 clas­sic pro­pa­ganda oper­a­tion.  As The Guard­ian repor­ted, the secret­ive MI6 media manip­u­la­tion sec­tion, Inform­a­tion Oper­a­tions, (I/Ops), had suc­cess­fully spun a fake story to hap­less spook hack, Con Cough­lin, that Gad­dafi Junior was involved in cur­rency fraud.  This story was fake, but the paper trail it pro­duced was used by the spies as a pre­text to pre­vent Saif from enter­ing the UK at the time. 

Saif_Prince_AndrewBy 2002 this was all old his­tory, of course.  Saif was wel­comed to the UK, offi­cially to study for his MA and PhD at the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics (and show­ing his grat­it­ude to that august insti­tu­tion with a hefty dona­tion of £1.5 mil­lion — it makes the new tuition fees for UK stu­dents seem bet­ter value for money), and unof­fi­cially to chum up to vari­ous Estab­lish­ment ena­blers to end Libya’s pariah status, open up luc­rat­ive trade chan­nels, and get the SAS to train up Libya’s spe­cial forces

The UK mil­it­ary must be just lov­ing that now.….

So I get the feel­ing that the UK gov­ern­ment has over the last dec­ade indeed “danced with the devil”.  After dec­ades of view­ing Libya and Col­onel Gad­dafi as a Pri­or­ity One JIC intel­li­gence tar­get, the UK gov­ern­ment fell over itself to appease the Gad­dafi régime in the wake of the bungled assas­sin­a­tion attempt in 1996 and the libelling of his son.  These were the sticks Gad­dafi used; the car­rots were undoubtedly the Saif/MI6-facilitated oil con­tracts

Of course, all this is now pretty much a moot point, fol­low­ing Dave Cameron’s “neces­sary, legal and right” mil­it­ary inter­ven­tion.  If the wily old Col­onel man­ages to hang on grimly to some semblence of power (and he has an impress­ive track-record of sur­viv­ing against the odds), then I doubt if he’ll be happy to coöper­ate with Brit­ish oil com­pan­ies in the future.  At the very least. 

Gad­dafi has already threatened “ven­geance” against the West, and it was repor­ted today that MI5 is tak­ing this all-too-preditable risk seriously.

If Gad­dafi is deposed, who can real­ist­ic­ally pre­dict the inten­tions and cap­ab­il­it­ies of those who will fill the power vacuum?  We should have learnt from Afgh­anistan and Iraq: my enemy’s enemy is my friend — until he becomes my enemy again.….