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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