RSC Play about the Shayler Case

In London in 2001 the Royal Shakespeare Company performed a play called “Epitaph for the Official Secrets Act” by Paul Greengrass (who co-wrote the notorious book “Spycatcher“).  The play focused on the political issues around whistleblowing and the Shayler case.

It was an excellent play, with an intelligent analysis of the current mess that is secrecy legislation in the UK, but it was rather strange to see actors using words your own words on stage.

The following report appeared in “The Observer”:

Shayler is a model spy for MI5 play

by Vanessa Thorpe, Arts Correspondent, 2001

Henry V, Macbeth and Hamlet, the great
Shakespearean protagonists who strut before audiences at
Stratford-upon-Avon, are to be joined tomorrow by a new name, the
former MI5 renegade, David Shayler.

A new play by Paul Greengrass, the screenwriter responsible for ITV’s
upcoming film about Bloody Sunday and for the award-winning television
dramatisation of The Murder of Stephen Lawrence , is to be premiered
tomorrow night by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

for the Official Secrets Act will also feature Shayler’s girlfriend,
Annie Machon, and the MI5’s first woman director, Stella Rimington. ‘It
is a play about the year that MI5 first decided to recruit a new sort
of agent,’ explained Simon Reade, the RSC’s dramaturge, referring to
1991, when the secret service briefly turned away from their
established Oxbridge source of graduates and advertised for applicants
from the wider population.

‘The play starts with a
reading of the advertisement that newspapers ran at the time,’ said
Reade, who developed the piece with Greengrass for its six-night run.
‘The ad showed an empty chair under the words “Godot isn’t coming”.’
The play then deals with some of the changes that followed as Rimington
took control of an organisation that was fighting to redefine itself.

Machon and Shayler, both from the graduate intake that was then new, are identified only by their first names.

News of their theatrical debut came as a shock to Shayler and Machon,
who are in London awaiting Shayler’s trial on charges of breaching the
Official Secrets Act. Machon said: ‘It is rather alarming to find that
we are both going to played by actors.’

BBC Radio Bristol Interview

A recent interview on BBC Radio Bristol to publicise the screening of an award-winning new documentary called “The Elephant in the Room”, made by talented director Dean Puckett.

I had the chance to explore the mechanisms by which the UK media is controlled by the spies and the government, including the section in MI6 called I/Ops, which plants false stories in the media to the benefit of MI5 and MI6.

August 2007 Mail on Sunday Article

David Shayler’s former partner reveals: How the bullying State crushed him

Link to daily mail original – link to Daily Mail comments

Ten years ago this month former MI5 officer David Shayler made shocking revelations in this newspaper about how Britain’s spies were unable to deal with the growing threat of global terrorism.

He disclosed how MI5’s peculiar obsession with bureaucracy and secrecy prevented crucial information being used to stop bombings. And he told how insufficient agents and inept decision-making meant that terrorist groups were not properly monitored.

None of his original disclosures was shown to be wrong. Indeed, in 2005 the bombings in London proved the whistleblower correct: MI5 was not equipped to counter terror on our streets.

The Government response to David’s disclosures was to place a gagging order on The Mail on Sunday and launch a six-year campaign to discredit and persecute Shayler. Alastair Campbell threatened to ‘send in the heavies’ and the whistleblower was forced into exile abroad, jailed twice and sued for damages; his friends and family were harassed and some arrested.

He faced a bleak, uncertain future and for many years he was under intense stress and pressure, often isolated and always under surveillance. I had a ringside seat for the ‘Get Shayler’ operation because I was an MI5 officer at the same time (1991-96) and also his girlfriend and co-campaigner until last year when I ended my relationship with a broken man.

I witnessed first-hand the extraordinary psychological, physical and emotional burden of being a whistleblower when the full power of the secret State is launched against you. A decade on the results of that pernicious campaign became clear when I heard that David had proclaimed himself as “The Messiah” and “God” and could predict the weather. I was saddened but not shocked. The story of David Shayler is not just one of a whistleblower but also an indictment of the lack of democracy and accountability in Britain.

I first met David when we were both working in F2, the counter-subversion section of MI5, where we were repeatedly reassured that MI5 had to work within the law. We were young and keen to help protect our country. I noticed David immediately, as he was very bright, and always asked the difficult questions. Over a period of a year we became friends, and then we fell in love.

In the run-up to the 1992 General Election we were involved in assessing any parliamentary candidate and potential MP. This meant that they all had their names cross-referenced with MI5’s database. If any candidates had a file, this was reviewed. We saw files on most of the top politicians of the past decade, from Tony Blair down, something that gave us concerns.

We then both moved to G Branch, the international counter-terrorist division, with David heading the Libyan section. It was here that he witnessed a catalogue of errors and crimes: the illegal phone-tapping of a prominent Guardian journalist, the failure of MI5 to prevent the bombing of the Israeli embassy in London in July 1994, which resulted in the wrongful conviction of two innocent Palestinians, and the attempted assassination of Colonel Gaddafi of Libya.

David raised this with his bosses at the time but they showed no interest. So we resigned from MI5 after deciding to go public to force an inquiry into the Gaddafi plot.

After The Mail on Sunday revelations we decamped to France while David tried to get the Government to take his evidence and investigate MI5’s crimes, something, to this day, it has refused to do. Rather than addressing the problem, the Intelligence Services tried to shoot the messenger. They planted stories claiming David was a fantasist, overlooked for promotion, and was too junior to know what he was talking about. These are classic tactics used against whistleblowers and were wheeled out again when Dr David Kelly took his life.

We eventually returned home in 2000, by which time David felt isolated and angry. He began to distrust friends and thought that many of them might be reporting on him. He was convinced he was constantly followed and began to take photographs of people in the street. When the trial started, and with David effectively gagged, the jury had no choice but to convict.

He received a six-month sentence but the judgment exonerated him of placing agents’ lives at risk, conceding that he had spoken out in what he thought to be the public interest. David had blown the whistle with the best of motives. He had exposed heinous State crimes up to and including murder, yet he was the one in prison with his reputation in tatters. His release from jail saw a changed man. David was full of anger, frustration and bitterness and became depressed and withdrawn. He was drawn to the spiritual teachings of kabbalah, and became obsessed with the subject instead of focusing on what we should do to survive. Last summer, I went away for a weekend. When I returned, David had shaved off all his hair and his eyebrows as part of his spiritual evolution. He knew that I had always loved his long, thick hair, so it felt like a personal slap in the face. He was in trouble. He was quick to anger if anyone questioned him. He became obsessive about little details, espoused wacky theories and shunned his family and old friends. His paranoia also escalated. His experience of being hounded and vilified for a decade had left a deep persecution complex. Eventually the strain was too much and I ended the relationship.

It was difficult as we had shared so much over the 14 years we had been together, but it felt that we were no longer a team – David was focusing only on esoteric issues. Looking back, I am still proud of what we did. I believe that if you witness the crimes that we did, you have to take action. But the price for taking that stand against a bully State can be high. It is tragic to see an honourable and brave man crushed in this way. The British Establishment is ruthless in protecting its own interests rather than those of our country. Today David Shayler is living testimony to that.

Resonance FM Interview

This is an interview I recorded for Resonance FM with We Are Change UK, a rapidly-growing  activist group in the USA and Europe, in which I get the chance to discuss the spies, their crimes, cover-ups, the media, the war on terror and the erosion of our freedoms, amongst many other issues:

Download We_Are_Change_Interview.mp3 (25.4M)

Gareth Peirce talks to Moazzam Begg

An interview between Guantanamo detainee, Moazzam Begg, and human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce.

I have written before about the appalling treatment of people like Moazzam, who are kidnapped, tortured, and held illegally without charge in America’s secret prison camps and Gitmo. Here he has the chance to interview Gareth about this and the wider implications:


Gareth Peirce has worked indefatigably over many years to defend victims of miscarriages of justice in the UK courts and beyond. The roll call of those she has helped, not just legally but also with emotional support and a gentle and humane approach, includes: the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, Samar Alami and Jawed Botmeh (the Israeli Embassy Two), David Shayler, the Belmarsh internees, Judith Ward, the family of Jean Charles de Menezes, and now the Guantanamo victims.

Gareth is a true hero of our times.

Cynthia McKinney and Annie Machon in Amsterdam, 2007

After the London event in 2007, Cynthia McKinney and I flew over to Amsterdam for an interview at a big public event organised by new media organisation, Docs at the Docks.

Introducing Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney in London, 2007

Former US Congresswoman and current Presidential Green Party candidate, Cynthia McKinney, visited London in September 2007.  I had the privilege of introducing her at the London event.


Poor Bloody Infantry

There is an ongoing campaign to save Bletchley Park for the nation, in the teeth of government opposition. As historic British monuments go, the question of whether to preserve it for posterity should be a no-brainer. Bletchley is not only where Hitler’s Enigma code machine was decrypted, along with many other systems, which arguably gave the Allies the intelligence advantage that led to victory in World War 2, it is also where the first digital electronic computers, codenamed Colossus, were operated. Two landmark events of the 20th century.

Recently The Times reported on this campaign. The article also the dwells at some length on how long Bletchley’s secrets were kept by the 10,000 people who worked there during the war. Although this information was declassified after 30 years, the habit of secrecy was so deeply ingrained that many former employees never breathed a word. The article laments the passing of this habit of discretion from British life, stating that politicians and senior intelligence officers now appear to view the possession of insider knowledge as a good pension fund when they come to write their memoirs.

Over the last decade we have see a myriad of books emerging for the upper echelons of government and intelligence in the UK: Alastair Campbell, Robin Cook, Washington Ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer, ex-MI5 chief Dame Stella Rimington. Even Tony Blair has apparently signed a seven figure deal for his memoirs.

All these books have a number of characteristics in common: they are lengthy, but say little of relevance about the burning issues of the day; they appear to have been written for profit and not in the public interest; and not one of these writers has ever even been arrested under the Official Secrets Act, even when there is clear prima facie evidence of a breach.

Yet these diligent authors are the very people who are the first to use the OSA to stifle legitimate disclosure of crime, corruption and incompetence in the highest levels of government and intelligence by real whistleblowers, who risk their careers and their freedom. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

But was the old-fashioned, blanket discretion, vaunted by The Times, really such a good thing? The code of “loose talk costs lives” may have made sense during the Second World War, when this nation was fighting for its life. The work at Bletchley was manifestly a success, obviating any need to blow the whistle. But who can tell how these patriotic men and women would have reacted had they witnessed crimes or incompetence that damaged our nation’s security, led to the deaths of our soldiers, or even possible defeat?

Also, was the 30-year non-disclosure rule around the work of Bletchley really necessary? After all, the war had been won, so how could disclosure benefit the enemy? This unthinking application of the standard rules cost the UK dearly. In fact, it would be accurate to say that it severely damaged the UK’s economic wellbeing – something the OSA is supposed to protect.

In 1943 the British were the world leaders in digital electronic computing. The draconian Official Secrets Act precluded the development and commercial use of this knowledge in Britain after the war. In fact, mindbogglingly, the Colossus computers were dismantled and the research destroyed.

There were no similar provisions affecting the American cryptographers who had been stationed at Bletchley. Consequently, after the war they enthusiastically applied British research and technology to develop the US computer research programme and eventually the market, paving the way to the success of Silicon Valley and the domination of the world’s IT markets for decades. What price the famed British stiff upper lip and discretion then?

Of course, there need to be legal provisions to protect real secrets that could affect Britain’s national security. However, this should be proportionate and balanced, and should not prevent the development of new research and technologies, the exposure in the public interest of crime, and certainly not the fact our country was taken into war on the basis of lies.

Realistically, however, in the age of the internet such legal provisions are increasingly meaningless. Despite this, more and more countries appear to be adopting Britain’s model of antiquated and draconian secrecy legislation.

We live in a country that criminalises any disclosure of sensitive information – unless it comes in the form of memoirs from senior politicians, Whitehall officials or spooks of course. As always, there is one rule for the generals and one for the poor bloody infantry.

For the good of our country, we need to rethink this legislation.

Save Our Free Speech

The Guardian today reported that the United Nations Committee on Human Rights had issued a damning indictment of the British government’s use of legislation to suppress a right that is fundamental to all functioning democracies: freedom of expression.

This is not news to me. But it’s interesting that freedom of expression is now being curtailed in so many varied, interesting and imaginative ways: libel laws, terrorism laws and official secrecy. That’s quite an arsenal.

Britain is now infamous for being the “libel capital” of the world. Wealthy individuals can use our courts to suppress publication of critical books and articles anywhere in the world, if they can prove that the book has been sold in the UK – even if it’s just one, second-hand copy on Amazon. The magazine, Private Eye, has been commenting on this extensively over the last year.

Then, under the slew of new counter-terrorism legislation that the Labour government has introduced since 2001, it is now an offence to say anything that might “encourage” terrorism. That definition is so broad that, say, you or I made an innocent comment about the Palestinian or Iraqi situation, and this could be misconstrued by another person as encouraging them to violence, this could be assessed subjectively as a criminal offence by the prosecuting authorities. This is third party thought-crime.

These sort of laws have a negative impact on free speech, as publishers, editors and journalists begin to self-censor rather than run informed risks for the public good.

But it’s the third area of law that resonates most with me, for obvious reasons: the 1989 Official Secrets Act, which criminalises any unauthorised disclosure by serving or former intelligence officers, notified persons, and other crown servants and officials. These people are the most likely to witness high crimes and misdemeanors on the part of government, police and the intelligence services, and yet they are the most criminalised in this country for speaking out. Whistleblowers in other areas of work are specifically protected by the law under the Public Interest Disclosure Act (1998).

How did this happen? Ever since the 1911 Official Secrets Act came into force, there has been legislation to protect this nation’s genuine secrets against the actions of traitors. Under this law, crown servants face 14 years in prison if they betray information to hostile powers. Of course we need to protect genuine secrets, and this is certainly safeguard enough.

The change in this law was specifically designed to gag genuine whistleblowers in sensitive areas, not protect national security. This came about in the 1980s after the notorious failed prosecution of Ministry of Defense civil servant, Clive Ponting. In 1984 he blew the whistle on the fact the British government knew that the Argentinian warship, the General Belgrano, was sailing away from the exclusion zone during the Falklands War in 1982. Despite this, the order was still given to attack it, and many were killed. Ponting was rightly outraged by this, and went public. His actions were manifestly in the public interest, and this was precisely the successful defense he ran in court. Furious, the Conservative government of the time re-wrote the secrecy laws, removing the public interest defense to deter such principled whistleblowers in the future. And this is the current Official Secrets Act criticised so strongly by the UN.

Interestingly, at the time the Labour party strongly opposed this change, rightly thinking that this would curtail crucial information reaching the public domain. At this point, of course, many of them correctly suspected that they were on the receiving end of illegal investigations by MI5.

The roll call of Labour MPs who voted against the proposed Act as it passed through Parliament in 1988 includes such luminaries as Tony Blair, Jack Straw and the former Attorney General John Morris. All these people went on to use the 1989 OSA to threaten and prosecute the intelligence whistleblowers of the last decade.

The blanket ban on freedom of expression for intelligence personnel appears to be illegal under the terms of the European Convention of Human Rights. Sure, Article 10(2) does give nations the limited right to curtail freedom of expression in a proportionate way to protect national security. However, the term “national security” has never been defined for legal purposes in this country and is used as a catch-all phrase to prevent disclosure of anything embarrassing to the government and the intelligence agencies. Plus, during these cases, lawyers and judges have consistently confused the notion of the national interest with national security – two very different beasts. And freedom of expression cannot be legally curtailed under the Convention merely for reasons of “the national interest”.

So I was heartened to read the UN’s verdict on this legal mess: “Powers under the Official Secrets Act have been “exercised to frustrate former employees of the crown from bringing into the public domain issues of genuine public interest, and can be exercised to prevent the media from publishing such matters”.”

Let’s hope this leads to the reinstatement of the public interest defence at the very least. During this time of the unending “war on terror”, governments lying to take us into illegal wars, and the use of torture and internment, whistleblowers play an important role in upholding and defending our democratic values. We need to protect them, not prosecute them.

The Rise of the Mercenary

Stephen Armstrong published an interesting article in today’s New Statesman magazine. Based on his new book War plc: the Rise of the New Corporate Mercenary, it examines the rise of the corporate security consultant. Or in basic English – mercenaries.

I met Stephen when I was invited by James Whale to review the book on Press TV. I was impressed with his research and depth of knowledge on this subject. It was an unusually harmonious talk show – rather than arguing, we all took a broadly similar approach to the issue of mercenaries, oversight and accountability.

The increasing privatisation of intelligence is an insidious development in the world of espionage and war. For many decades there have existed on the fringes of the official intelligence world a few private security companies; think Kroll, Blackwater, Aegis. These companies are often the last refuge of …… former intelligence officers of the western spook organisations.

These people, often frustrated at the overly bureaucratic nature of the governmental spy organisations, resign and are gently steered towards these corporations. That, or the relocation officers get them nice juicy jobs at merchant banks, arms companies or international quangos. It’s always useful to have reliable chaps in useful places, after all.

In the last decade, however, we have seen an explosion in the number of these companies. One of my former colleagues is a founder of Diligence, which is going from strength to strength. These kinds of companies specialise in corporate spying, the neutralisation of opposition and protest groups, and security. The latter usually boils down to providing military muscle in hot spots like Iraq. While I can see the attraction for soldiers leaving crack regiments and wondering what on earth they can do with their specialised expertise, and who then decide that earning £10,000 a week risking their lives in Baghdad is a good bet, this has worrying implications for the rule of law.

Leaving aside the small matter that, under international and domestic UK law, all wars of aggression are illegal, our official British military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq is at least to a certain degree accountable. The most egregious war crimes have resulted in court martials. But the new mercenaries live in a legal no-man’s land, and in this territory anything goes. Or can at least be covered up.

This is the same principle that has guided these unofficial spook companies over the years – plausible deniability. What little democratic oversight there is in the UK of the intelligence community still does give them limited pause for thought: what if the media hears about it? What if an MP asks an awkward question? By using former colleagues in the corporate intelligence world, MI5, MI6 et al can out source the risk.

The oversight and accountability for the official spooks and the army are bad enough. The privatisation of intelligence and military might makes a further mockery of the feeble oversight provisions in place in this country. This is a worrying development in legal and democratic terms; more importantly, it has a direct, daily impact on the rights of innocent men, women and children around the world. We need to ensure that the official and unofficial spooks and military are accountable under the law.

New Statesman Article, August 2008

The new spies

Stephen Armstrong

the Cold War ended, it didn’t spell curtains for the secret agent.
Private espionage is a booming industry and environmental protest
groups are its prime target



As you hunker down for the last few days of the Camp for Climate
Action, discussing how to force your way into Kingsnorth power station
in an attempt to prevent the construction of a new coal facility, cast
your eyes around your fellow protesters. Do they look entirely bona
fide to you? And don’t look for the old-school special branch officers
– Kent Police are a tiny force. It’s the corporate spies hired by
private companies you need to watch out for.

According to the private espionage industry itself, roughly one in four of your comrades is on a multinational’s payroll.

Russell Corn, managing director of Diligence, one of a growing
number of "corporate intelligence agencies", with offices high in the
Canary Wharf glass tower, says private spies make up 25 per cent of
every activist camp. "If you stuck an intercept up near one of those
camps, you wouldn’t believe the amount of outgoing calls after every
meeting saying, ‘Tomorrow we’re going to cut the fence’," he smiles.
"Easily one in four of the people there are taking the corporate

In April this year, for instance, the anti-aviation campaign network
Plane Stupid, one of the main organisers of the eco-camp built to
protest against the expansion of Heathrow Airport, announced that one
of its activists, Ken Tobias, was actually called Toby Kendall, was
working for a corporate espionage firm called C2i, and had been leaking
information about the group to paying clients and the media. He had
been hired by an as yet unknown private company to provide information
and disrupt the group’s campaigning.

When Tobias first turned up at Plane Stupid’s meetings in July 2007,
he seemed a committed former Oxford student dedicated to reducing
aircraft emissions. The group gradually became suspicious because he
showed up early at meetings, constantly pushed for increasingly drama
tic direct action and – the ultimate giveaway – dressed a little too
well for an ecowarrior. When they showed his picture around Oxford they
found an old college pal who identified him as Toby Kendall. A quick
Google search revealed his Bebo page with a link to a corporate
networking site, where his job as an "analyst" at C2i International,
working in "security and investigations", was pasted in full public

Just a month earlier, a woman called Cara Schaffer had contacted the
Student/Farmworker Alliance, an idealistic bunch of American college
students who lobby fast-food companies to help migrant workers in
Florida who harvest tomatoes. Like the cockle-pickers of Morecambe Bay,
many of these workers are smuggled into the US by gangs which then take
their passports and force them to work without pay to clear often
fictitious debts to regain their papers.

Digging up dirt

Again, Schaffer’s excessive eagerness aroused suspicion, and again,
the internet revealed her true identity. She owned Diplomatic Tactical
Services, a private espionage firm which had pre viously hired as a
subcontractor one Guillermo Zara bozo, today facing murder charges in
Miami for his role in allegedly executing four crew members of a
chartered fishing boat, an allegation he denies. Schaffer turned out to
be working for Burger King – the home, perhaps appropriately, of the

The cute thing about these two bozos is that they got caught pretty
early on, but that was because they were young and had no background in

The real market is in proper, old-school spies who are suddenly
entering the private sector. For professional spooks, the 1990s were no
fun at all. The Cold War was over, defence spending was down and a
detailed knowledge of cold-drop techniques in central Berlin was
useless to governments looking for Arabic speakers who knew the Quran.

From New York and London to Moscow and Beijing, any decent-sized
corporation can now hire former agents from the CIA, FBI, MI5, MI6 and
the KGB. The ex-spooks are selling their old skills and contacts to
multinationals, hedge funds and oligarchs, digging up dirt on
competitors, uncovering the secrets of boardroom rivals and exposing
investment targets. They are also keeping tabs on journalists,
protesters and even potential employees.

"MI5 and MI6 in particular have always guided ex-employees into
security companies," explains Annie Machon, the former MI5 agent who
helped David Shayler blow the whistle on the security services back in
1997. "It’s always useful to them to have friends they can tap for info
or recruit for a job that requires plausible deniability. The big
change in recent years has been the huge growth in these companies.
Where before it was a handful of private detective agencies, now there
are hundreds of multinational security organisations, which operate
with less regulation than the spooks themselves," she says.

Corn’s company Diligence, for instance, was set up in 2000 by Nick
Day, a former MI5 spy, and an ex-CIA agent, Mike Baker. Before long,
the duo had built up a roster of high-paying clients including Enron,
oil and pharmaceutical companies, as well as law firms and hedge funds.
In 2001, a small investment by the Washington lobbying company Barbour
Griffith & Rogers propelled their growth. However, BGR and Baker
sold their stakes in 2005, shortly before a scandal shook Diligence.
KPMG, the global professional services firm, accused Diligence staff of
impersonating British spies to gain information on a corporate takeover
for a Russian telecoms client called Alfa Group. Diligence settled the
lawsuit without admitting liability.

Since then, it has recruited the former Conservative Party leader
Michael Howard as chairman of its European operations. And it is that
sort of respectability and lobbying power that big players are after.
In 2007, the parent company of the US private military firm Blackwater,
which hit the headlines for gunning down Iraqi civilians in Baghdad
last September, entered this market through Total Intelligence
Solutions (TIS), a new CIA-type private operation, to provide
intelligence services to commercial clients.

Discreet investigations

Blackwater’s vice-chairman, J Cofer Black, who runs TIS, spent three
decades in the CIA and the state department, becoming director of the
Counterterrorist Centre and co-ordinator for counter terrorism, a job
with ambassadorial rank. He describes the new company as bringing "the
intelligence-gathering methodology and analytical skills traditionally
honed by CIA operatives directly to the boardroom. With a service like
this, CEOs and their security personnel will be able to respond to
threats quickly and confidently – whether it’s determining which city
is safest to open a new plant in or working to keep employees out of
harm’s way after a terrorist attack."

Black also says TIS will operate a "24/7 intelligence fusion and
warning centre" that will monitor civil unrest, terrorism, economic
stability, environmental and health concerns, and information
technology security around the world.

The established firms already operating in this area include Kroll,
Aegis, Garda, Control Risks, GPW and Hakluyt & Co. More firms are
opening every day and there is little regulation of the sector.

Hakluyt & Co was founded in 1995 by former British MI6 officers,
with a reputation for discreet and effective investigations. The
company butler, a former gurkha, greets visitors to its London HQ, a
town house off Park Lane. In winter, meetings can be conducted beside
the fire. Computers are rarely in sight. Hakluyt’s advisory board has
become an exit chamber for captains of industry and former government
officials. Members have included Sir Rod Eddington, a former BA CEO,
and Sir Christopher Gent, former chief executive of Vodafone.

"It is hard to work well for an oil company without knowing who all
the key decision-makers in a government are and having the right
contacts to reach them," explains Stéphane Gérardin, who runs the
French private security company Géos. "We have an intelligence section
where we employ some investigative journalists, people from the finance
sector, from equity banks and some from security backgrounds.

"It is an important part of image protection for our clients as
well. We have our own tracking and monitoring centre, with analysts
doing risk mapping and preparing our clients for every potential
problem. It could be about alerting them to local sensitivities. Or, in
this globalised internet age, it can be a group of students in
Cambridge who have launched a protest website, who may be sending out a

"So we need to be able to understand and prepare our own propaganda
to counter such attacks. This is work we do to protect our clients."

Trusted friend

Like the state security services, which ended up running Class War
in the 1990s after a hugely successful penetration, these spies work to
become reliable members of any protest movement. In April 2007, the
Campaign Against Arms Trade called in the police after court documents
showed that the weapons manufacturer BAE Systems had paid a private
agency to spy on the peace group.

BAE admitted that it had paid £2,500 a month to LigneDeux
Associates, whose agent Paul Mercer – accepted as a trusted member of
the campaign – passed information, including a legally privileged
document, to BAE’s director of security, Mike McGinty.

Unlike the security services, however, these services don’t bother
with penetrating the far left or anti-fascist groups. Their clients are
only interested in the protest movements that threaten corporations.
And as that is the nature of much protest in these times, it is a wide
field, but with a particular impact on environmental groups.

At any of this summer’s green protests the corporate spies will be
there, out-of-work MI5 agents tapping green activists’ mobile phones to
sell the information on to interested companies.

Russell Corn knows of incidents where a spook at a meeting has
suggested a high-street bank as a target, then left the meeting to
phone the officers of said bank, telling them that he has penetrated an
activist camp planning an attack and offering to sell the details. Corn
has no time for such behaviour, however.

"The thing about a really good private spy," he tells me, "is that you’ll never know he’s around and he’ll never get caught.

"The fact you can’t see them . . . it means nothing at all."

Fig Leaf to the Spies

The lack of any meaningful oversight of the UK’s intelligence community was highlighted again last week, when The Daily Mail reported that a crucial fax was lost in the run-up to the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005.

There has yet to be an official enquiry into the worst terrorist atrocity on the UK mainland, despite the call for one from traumatised families and survivors and the legitimate concerns of the British public. To date, we have had to make do with an “official narrative” written by a faceless bureaucrat and published in May 2006. As soon as it was published, the then Home Secretary, John Reid, had to correct egregious factual errors when presenting it to Parliament.

The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) also did a shoddy first job, when it cleared the security forces of all wrong-doing in its initial report published at the same time. It claimed a lack of resources had hampered MI5’s counter-terrorism efforts.

However, following a useful leak, it emerged that MI5 had not only been aware of at least two of the alleged bombers before the attack, it had been concerned enough to send a fax up to West Yorkshire Police Special Branch asking them to investigate Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer. This fax was never acted upon.

So the ISC has been forced to produce another report, this time apparently admitting that, yes, there had been intelligence failures, most notably the lost fax. West Yorkshire SB should have acted on it. But the intelligence officer in MI5 responsible for this investigation should have chased it up when no response was forthcoming.

This second ISC report, which has been sitting on the Prime Minister’s desk for weeks already, is said to be “devastating”. However, I’m willing to bet that if/when it sees the light of day, it will be anything but.

The ISC is at best an oversight fig leaf. It was formed in 1994, when MI6 and GCHQ were put on a statutory footing for the first time with the Intelligence Services Act. At the time the press welcomed this as a great step forward towards democratic accountability for the intelligence community. Well, it could not have been worse than the previous set-up, when MI5, MI6 and GCHQ did not officially exist. They were not required to obey the laws of the land, and no MP was allowed to ask a question in Parliament about their activities. As 1980s whistleblower Peter Wright so succinctly put it, the spies could bug and burgle their way around with impunity.

So the establishment of the ISC was a (very) limited step in the right direction. However, it is not a Parliamentary Committee. Its members are selected by the Prime Minister, and it is answerable only to the PM, who can vet its findings. The remit of the ISC only covers matters of spy policy, administration and finance. It is not empowered to investigate allegations of operational incompetence nor crimes committed by the spies. And its annual report has become a joke within the media, as there are usually more redactions than coherent sentences.

The ISC’s first big test came in the 1990s following the Shayler and Tomlinson disclosures. These involved detailed allegations of illegal investigations, bungled operations and assassination attempts against foreign heads of state. It is difficult to conceive of more heinous crimes committed by our shadowy spies.

But how did the ISC react? If one reads the reports from the relevant years, the only aspect that exercised the ISC was Shayler’s information that MI5 had on many MPs and government ministers. The ISC was reassured by MI5 that would no longer be able to use these files. That’s it.

Forget about files being illegally held on hundreds of thousands of innocent UK citizens; forget about the illegal phone taps, the preventable deaths on UK streets from IRA bombs, innocent people being thrown in prison, and the assassination attempt against Colonel Gaddafi of Libya. The fearless and eternally vigilant ISC MPs were primarily concerned about receiving reassurance that their files would no longer be vetted by MI5 officers on the basis of membership to “subversive” organisations. What were they afraid of – that shameful evidence of early left-wing activity from their fiery youth might emerge? Heaven forbid under New Labour.

Barely a day goes by when newspaper headlines do not remind us of terrible threats to our national security. Only in the last week, the UK media has reported that the threat of espionage from Russia and China is at its highest since the days of the Cold War; that resurgent Republican terror groups in Northern Ireland pose a graver danger to us even than Al Qaeda; that radicalised British Muslim youth are returning from fighting with the Taliban to wage war on the streets of the UK. We have to take all this on trust, despite the intelligence community’s appalling track record of bending the truth to gain more powers and resources. This is why meaningful oversight is so vitally important for the health of our democracy. The ISC is a long way from providing that.