The government is pushing through yet another piece of legislation designed to provide “public service honesty, integrity and independence” to the British people. As part of this strategy, the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill even contains a section to provide protection for government whistleblowers. Needless to say, spies are automatically excluded (see section 25 (2) of the draft Bill).
The draft Bill states that any whistleblowers from within the ranks of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ will be dealt with internally. This has always been the case for MI5 and 6 (despite the government’s breathtaking lies during the Shayler case that he could have gone to any crown servant with his concerns). However, in the case of GCHQ, this Bill will take away employees’ rights to go to an independent Commissioner, to bring it into draconian line with its sister agencies.
So, to put this bluntly, those in our intelligence agencies who experience ethical qualms about their work or, even worse, witness crimes, will have to take their concerns to the head of the very agency committing these crimes. Let’s guess how far these complaints will go.
Now, some might say that it’s naïve to think that the intelligence agencies don’t commit illegal or unethical acts. All I can say to that is — grow up. James Bond is a myth. Even the bad old days of the Cold War when, as former MI5 officer Peter Wright put it, MI5 could “bug and burgle its way around London” with impunity are long gone. The 1985 Interception of Communications Act (and subsequent legislation), the 1989 Security Service Act, and the 1994 Intelligence Services Act, have put paid to that. In line with basic human rights, the spies now have to apply for ministerial permission based on, ahem, a solid intelligence case, to aggressively investigate a target.
During the 10 month period of my recruitment to MI5 in 1990, I was repeatedly told that the organisation had to obey the law; that it was evolving into a modern counter-terrorism agency. If that is indeed the case, then why is MI5 still to this day not accountable in the same way as the Metropolitan Police Special Branch, which does the same work?
And who is the brave politician ensuring that our intelligence community can remain shrouded in secrecy and protected from criticism by the full force of the law? Stand up Justice Minister Jack Straw.
It just remains for me to say that Straw has a certain history in this area. In 1997, when Shayler blew the whistle, Straw was the Home Secretary, the government minister charged with overseeing MI5. One of Shayler’s early disclosures was that MI5 held files on a number of politicians, including Straw himself. Did Straw demand to see his file in angry disbelief? No, he meekly did the spies’ bidding and issued a blanket injunction against Shayler and the UK’s national media.
But think about it — this is a classic Catch 22 situation. Either MI5 was right to open a file on Straw because he was a political subversive and a danger to national security – in which case, should he not have immediately resigned as Home Secretary? Or MI5 got it wrong about Straw. In which case he should have been investigating this mistake and demanding to know how many other innocent UK citizens had files wrongly and illegally opened on them.
But Straw did neither. Perhaps he was worried about what the spies could reveal about him? It’s interesting that he is yet again rushing to protect their interests….