Guardian article: the role of the spies in the UK

Here’s the text of an art­icle I wrote for The Guard­i­an a while ago, where I sug­gest we need a fresh per­spect­ive and some clear think­ing on the role of the spies in the UK

Worth reit­er­at­ing, fol­low­ing the pre-empt­ive arrest of pro­test­ers:

Mark_KennedyThe cas­cade of rev­el­a­tions about secret police­men, start­ing with PC Mark Kennedy/environmental act­iv­ist “Mark Stone”, has high­lighted the iden­tity crisis afflict­ing the Brit­ish secur­ity estab­lish­ment. Private under­cov­er police units are hav­ing their James Bond moment – cider shaken, not stirred – while MI5 has become ever more plod-like, yet without the accom­pa­ny­ing over­sight. How has this happened to our demo­cracy without any pub­lic debate?

From the late 19th cen­tury the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Spe­cial Branch invest­ig­ated ter­ror­ism while MI5, estab­lished in 1909, was a counter-intel­li­gence unit focus­ing on espi­on­age and polit­ic­al “sub­ver­sion”. The switch began in 1992 when Dame Stella Rim­ing­ton, then head of MI5, effected a White­hall coup and stole primacy for invest­ig­at­ing Irish ter­ror­ism from the Met. As a res­ult MI5 magic­ally dis­covered that sub­ver­sion was not such a threat after all – this rev­el­a­tion only three years after the Ber­lin Wall came down – and trans­ferred all its staff over to the new, sexy counter-ter­ror­ism sec­tions. Since then, MI5 has been eagerly build­ing its counter-ter­ror­ism empire, des­pite this being more obvi­ously evid­en­tial police work.

Spe­cial Branch was releg­ated to a sup­port­ing role, dab­bling in organ­ised crime and anim­al rights act­iv­ists, but not ter­ribly excited about either. Its prestige had been ser­i­ously tar­nished. It also had a group of exper­i­enced under­cov­er cops – known then as the Spe­cial Duties Sec­tion – with time on their hands.

Acpo_logoIt should there­fore come as little sur­prise that Acpo, the private lim­ited com­pany com­pris­ing seni­or police officers across the coun­try, came up with the bril­liant idea of using this skill-set against UK “domest­ic extrem­ists”. Acpo set up the Nation­al Pub­lic Order Intel­li­gence Unit (NPOIU). This first focused primar­ily on anim­al rights act­iv­ists, but mis­sion creep rap­idly set in and the unit’s role expan­ded into peace­ful protest groups. When this unac­count­able, Stasi-like unit was revealed it rightly caused an out­cry, espe­cially as the term “domest­ic extrem­ist” is not recog­nised under UK law, and can­not leg­ally be used as jus­ti­fic­a­tion to aggress­ively invade an individual’s pri­vacy because of their legit­im­ate polit­ic­al beliefs and act­iv­ism. So, plod has become increas­ingly spooky. What of the spooks?

As I men­tioned, they have been aggress­ively hoover­ing up the pres­ti­gi­ous counter-ter­ror­ism work. But, des­pite what the Amer­ic­ans have hys­ter­ic­ally asser­ted since 9/11, ter­ror­ism is not some unique form of “evil­tude”. It is a crime – a hideous, shock­ing one, but still a crime that should be invest­ig­ated, with evid­ence gathered, due pro­cess applied and the sus­pects on tri­al in front of a jury.

A mature demo­cracy that respects human rights and the rule of law should not intern sus­pects or render them to secret pris­ons and tor­ture them for years. And yet this is pre­cisely what our spooks are now allegedly doing – par­tic­u­larly when col­lud­ing with their US coun­ter­parts.

Also, MI5 and MI6 oper­ate out­side any real­ist­ic demo­crat­ic over­sight and con­trol. The remit of the intel­li­gence and secur­ity com­mit­tee in par­lia­ment only cov­ers the policy, admin­is­tra­tion and fin­ance of the spies. Since the committee’s incep­tion in 1994 it has repeatedly failed to mean­ing­fully address more ser­i­ous ques­tions about the spies’ role. The spooks are effect­ively above the law, while at the same time pro­tec­ted by the dra­coni­an Offi­cial Secrets Act. This makes the abuses of the NPOIU seem almost quaint. So what to do? A good first step might be to have an informed dis­cus­sion about the real­ist­ic threats to the UK. The police and spies huddle behind the pro­tect­ive phrase “nation­al secur­ity”. But what does this mean?

Climate_camp_and_policeThe core idea should be safe­guard­ing the nation’s integ­rity. A group of well-mean­ing envir­on­ment­al pro­test­ers should not even be on the radar. And, no mat­ter how awful, the occa­sion­al ter­ror­ist attack is not an exist­en­tial threat to the fab­ric of the nation in the way of, say, the planned Nazi inva­sion in 1940. Nor is it even close to the sus­tained bomb­ing of gov­ern­ment, infra­struc­ture and mil­it­ary tar­gets by the Pro­vi­sion­al IRA in the 70s-90s.

Once we under­stand the real threats, we as a nation can dis­cuss the steps to take to pro­tect ourselves; what meas­ures should be taken and what liber­ties occa­sion­ally and leg­ally com­prom­ised, and what demo­crat­ic account­ab­il­ity exists to ensure that the secur­ity forces do not exceed their remit and work with­in the law.

The Age of Transparency?

Black_sheep_text?Well, this is an inter­est­ing case in the US.  Thomas Drake, a former seni­or exec­ut­ive at the Amer­ic­an Nation­al Secur­ity Agency (NSA), the US elec­tron­ic eaves­drop­ping organ­isa­tion, is being charged under the 1917 US Espi­on­age Act for allegedly dis­clos­ing clas­si­fied inform­a­tion to a journ­al­ist about, gasp, the mis­man­age­ment, fin­an­cial waste and dubi­ous leg­al prac­tices of the spy­ing organ­isa­tion.  These days it might actu­ally be more news­worthy if the oppos­ite were to be dis­closed.…

How­ever, under the terms of the Espi­on­age Act, this des­ig­nates him an enemy of the Amer­ic­an people on a par with bona fide trait­ors of the past who sold secrets to hos­tile powers dur­ing the Cold War.

It strikes me that someone who reports mal­prac­tice, mis­takes and under-per­form­ance on the part of his (secret­ive) employ­ers might pos­sibly be someone who still has the motiv­a­tion to try to make a dif­fer­ence, to do their best to pro­tect people and serve the genu­ine interests of the whole coun­try.  Should such people be pro­sec­uted or should they be pro­tec­ted with a leg­al chan­nel to dis­clos­ure? 

Thomas Drake does not sound like a spy who should be pro­sec­uted for espi­on­age under the USA’s anti­quated act, he sounds on the avail­able inform­a­tion like a whis­tleblower, pure and simple.  But that won’t neces­sar­ily save him leg­ally, and he is appar­ently facing dec­ades in pris­on.  Pres­id­ent Obama, who made such a song and dance about trans­par­ency and account­ab­il­ity dur­ing his elec­tion cam­paign, has an even more egre­gious track record than pre­vi­ous pres­id­ents for hunt­ing down whis­tleblowers — the new “insider threat”.

This, of course, chimes with the Brit­ish exper­i­ence.  So-called left-of-centre polit­ic­al can­did­ates get elec­ted on a plat­form of trans­par­ency, free­dom of inform­a­tion, and an eth­ic­al for­eign policy (think Blair as well as Obama), and promptly renege on all their cam­paign prom­ises once they grab the top job. 

In fact, I would sug­gest that the more pro­fessedly “lib­er­al” the  gov­ern­ment, the more it feels empowered to shred civil liber­ties.  If a right-wing gov­ern­ment were to attack basic demo­crat­ic freedoms in such a way, the offi­cial oppos­i­tion (Democrats/Labour Party/whatever) would be obliged to make a show of oppos­ing the meas­ures to keep their core voters sweet.  Once they’re in power, of course, they can do what they want.

One stark example of this occured dur­ing the passing of the Brit­ish Offi­cial Secrets Act (1989) which, as I’ve writ­ten before, was spe­cific­ally designed to gag whis­tleblowers and pen­al­ise journ­al­ists.  The old OSA (1911) was already in place to deal with real trait­ors.

And who voted against the passing of this act in 1989?  Yes, you’ve guessed it, all those who then went on to become Labour gov­ern­ment min­is­ters after the 1997 Labour elec­tion land­slide — Tony Blair, Jack Straw, the late Robin Cook and a scrum of oth­er rather for­get­table min­is­ters and Attor­ney Gen­er­als.….  And yet it was this very New Labour gov­ern­ment in the UK that most often used the OSA to halt the free-flow of inform­a­tion and the dis­clos­ures of informed whis­tleblowers.  Obama has indeed learnt well.

It’s an oldie but still a good­ie: as one of my law­yers once wryly told me, it doesn’t mat­ter whom you vote for, the gov­ern­ment still gets in.….

Can the product of bugs be used as court evidence in the UK?

Black_sheep?_textAn inter­est­ing story on Chan­nel 4 TV news today: four Lon­don police officers are being pro­sec­uted for beat­ing up Babar Ahmad in 2003 while arrest­ing him on sus­pi­cion of ter­ror­ism charges.  And it turns out that the key evid­ence for the pro­sec­u­tion comes not from Ahmad’s com­plaint, nor from pho­to­graphs of his injur­ies, but from the product of an eaves­drop­ping device, more com­monly known as a bug, planted in his home by the UK Secur­ity Ser­vice, MI5.

It’s inter­est­ing in itself that MI5 has released this inform­a­tion for court pro­ceed­ings against Met counter-ter­ror­ism officers.  I shall res­ist spec­u­lat­ing now, but shall be watch­ing devel­op­ments with interest.

But the point I want to make quickly today is about the use of inter­cept mater­i­al as leg­al evid­ence in UK courts.  This can poten­tially be cru­cial for law­yers when speak­ing to their cli­ents, journ­al­ists who wish to pro­tect their sources, polticial act­iv­ists, and those who simply wish to pro­tect their inher­ent right to pri­vacy as the encroach­ing elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance state con­tin­ues to swell.

It can also be poten­tially use­ful inform­a­tion for MPs talk­ing to their con­stitu­ents.  Indeed, return­ing to the years-long case of Babar Ahmad, there was a media furore in 2008 when it was revealed that the Met had author­ised the bug­ging of his con­ver­sa­tions with his MP Sad­iq Khan dur­ing pris­on vis­its.  

And who was the com­mand­ing officer who author­ised this?  Step for­ward former Met Counter Ter­ror­ism supremo, Andy Hay­man, that much esteemed defend­er of Brit­ish civil liber­ties who recently sug­ges­ted “dawn raids” and “snatch squads ” be used against polit­ic­al act­iv­ists.

Unlike most oth­er west­ern coun­tries, the UK does not allow the use of tele­phone inter­cept as evid­ence in a court of law.  As I’ve writ­ten before, it’s a hangover from the cold war spy­ing game.  MI5 has tra­di­tion­ally seen phone taps as a source of intel­li­gence, not evid­ence, des­pite the fact that much of their work is notion­ally more evid­en­tially based in the 21st cen­tury.  It also still remains a sub­ject of debate and a fiercely fought rear­gard action by the spies them­selves, who claim telecheck is a “sens­it­ive tech­nique”. 

As if we don’t all know that our phones can be bugged.….

How­ever, eaves­drop­ping devices that are planted in your prop­erty — your home, your office, even your car — can indeed pro­duce evid­ence that can be used against you in a court of law.   All this requires a Home Office War­rant (HOW) to make it leg­al, but Home Sec­ret­ar­ies are tra­di­tion­ally reluct­ant to refuse a request in the interests of “nation­al secur­ity”.  Moreover, if the own­er of the prop­erty agrees to a bug, even without a HOW, they can be leg­ally used.  So if you live in ren­ted accom­mod­a­tion, befriend your land­lord!

Not a lot of people know all that — but we should. 

How the Light Gets In — speaking in Hay-on-Wye, May 30 2011

How_the_light_gets_in_Banner I did two ses­sions at Hay-on-Wye philo­sophy and music fest­iv­al — How the Light gets In in May 2011.

The first was a debate called “An Age of Trans­par­ency” with neo-con­ser­vat­ive com­ment­at­or Douglas Mur­ray, and philo­soph­er Nigel War­bur­ton.

The second was my talk about “Spies, Lies, and Life on the Run”.

Here’s a link to a video of my talk.