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.

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