Spy Chiefs attack UK Police State

DearloveSir Richard Dear­love, ex-head of MI6 and cur­rent Mas­ter of Pem­broke Col­lege, Cam­bridge, has been much in the news recently after gra­cing the Hay on Wye book fest­iv­al, where he gave a speech.  In this, he is repor­ted to have spoken out, in strong terms, against the endem­ic and all-per­vas­ive sur­veil­lance soci­ety devel­op­ing in the UK

Ex-spy chiefs in the UK have a charm­ing habit of using all these sur­veil­lance meas­ures to the nth degree while in the shad­ows, and then hav­ing a Dam­as­cene con­ver­sion into civil liber­ties cam­paign­ers once they retire.  Eliza Man­ning­ham-Buller, the ex-head of MI5, used her maid­en speech in the House of Lords to argue against the exten­sion of the time lim­it the police could hold a ter­ror­ist sus­pect without charge, and even Stella Rim­ing­ton (also ex-MI5) has recently thrown her hat in the ring.  They nick all my best lines these days.

Would­n’t it be great if one of them, one day, could argue in favour of human rights, pro­por­tion­al­ity and the adher­ence to the law while they were still in a pos­i­tion to influ­ence affairs?

Dear­love him­self could have changed the course of world his­tory if he had found the cour­age to speak out earli­er about the fact that the intel­li­gence case for the Iraq war was being fixed around pre-determ­ined policy.  As it is, we only know that he objec­ted to this because of the notori­ous, leaked Down­ing Street Memo.

The Guard­i­an news­pa­per repor­ted that Dear­love even touched on the real­ity of obtain­ing min­is­teri­al per­mis­sion before break­ing the law.  Which, of course, is the ulti­mate point of the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act, and does indeed enshrine the fabled “licence to kill”.  It states that MI6 officers can break the law abroad with impun­ity from pro­sec­u­tion if, and only if, they obtain pri­or writ­ten per­mis­sion from their polit­ic­al mas­ter — in this case the For­eign Sec­ret­ary.

How­ever, accord­ing to The Guard­i­an, he seems to have mis­un­der­stood the spir­it of the law, if not the let­ter:

He said that the intel­li­gence com­munity was “some­times asked to act in dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances. When it does, it asks for leg­al opin­ion and min­is­teri­al approv­al … It’s about polit­ic­al cov­er”. 

Moment­ar­ily put­ting aside the not unim­port­ant debate about wheth­er the spies and the gov­ern­ment should even be allowed tech­nic­ally to side-step inter­na­tion­al laws against crimes up to, and includ­ing, murder, I am still naively sur­prised by the shame­less­ness of this state­ment:  the notion of min­is­teri­al over­sight was put in place to ensure some kind of demo­crat­ic over­sight and account­ab­il­ity for the work of the spies — not to provide polit­ic­al cov­er, a fig leaf.

I think he’s rather giv­en the game away here about how the spies really view the role of  their “polit­ic­al mas­ters”.

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