For context, here’s a little bit of background information about the UK’s spy agencies, and the legal constraints within which they are supposed to operate.
There are three primary agencies: MI5 (the UK Security Service), MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service — SIS) and GCHQ (the Government Communications HQ). Beyond this inner circle, there is the Metropolitan Police Special Branch (MPSB), the special branches of every other police force in the UK, military intelligence, and Customs, amongst others.
MI5 and MI6 were set up in 1909 during the build up to the First World War, when their remit was to uncover German spies. For the next 80 years they didn’t officially exist and operated outside the law.
In 1989 MI5 was put on a legal footing for the first time when parliament passed the Security Service Act. This stated that it had to work within legal parameters, and if it wanted to do something that would otherwise be illegal, such as breaking into and bugging someone’s house, it had to get the written permission of its political master, the Home Secretary. Without that, MI5 would be breaking the law just as you or I would be.
MI6 and GCHQ were not put on a legal footing until the 1994 Intelligence Services Act, and are answerable to the Foreign Secretary. The same Act also set up the Intelligence and Security Committee in Parliament as a sop to democratic oversight. The ISC is responsible for overseeing the policy, finance and administration of the three agencies. It has absolutely no remit to look at their operational running, nor can it investigate alleged crimes committed by them. Even if it could, the ISC has no power to call for witnesses or demand documents from the spooks. Moreover, the committee is appointed by the Prime Minister, answerable only to him, and he can vet its findings. Much of the ISC’s annual reports are blanked out.
When I was recruited by MI5 in the early 1990s, the organisation was at great pains to explain that it worked within the law, was accountable, and its work was mainly investigating terrorism. Once I began working there, this quickly proved to be untrue. MI5 is incompetent, it breaks the law, connives at the imprisonment of innocent people, illegally bugs people, lies to government (on whom it holds personal files) and turns a blind eye to false flag terrorism. This is why I resigned and helped to blow the whistle.
With all this hysteria about the threat from Al Qaeda, and the avalanche of new powers and resources being thrown at the spooks, as well the erosion of our liberties, we need to keep a cool head. Why don’t our politicians take a step back and ask what precisely are the scale and nature of the threats facing this country, and how can we best police them? As Sir Ian Blair recently showed, we cannot take the security forces’ words about this at face value.
There’s a lot of historic baggage attached to MI5 and 6, particularly after their dirty tricks against the left in the 1980s. As they are now primarily doing a policing job against terrorism, why not just clear the decks and start again? Set up a dedicated counter-terrorism agency, which is properly accountable to parliament, as the police already are and the spies are not.
As it stands the UK has the most secretive intelligence agencies in the western world. They are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, and protected by the draconian Official Secrets Act. The 1989 OSA makes it a criminal offence for anyone to blow the whistle on crimes committed by the spies, and it is no longer possible for a whistleblower to argue that they acted in the public interest.
No other western democracy has spies who are quite so unaccountable, nor so protected from scrutiny by the law. The closest analogies are probably the intelligence agencies of countries such as Libya or Iran. Particularly as we now know that MI5 and MI6 officers are conniving in extraordinary rendition and the use of torture.
Are they legal? Yes, now, in theory. Do they abide by the law? Only when it suits them. Are they ethical? Absolutely not.