BBC Radio interview about the “snoopers’ charter”

Yesterday I gave an interview to BBC Radio Ulster about the security fall-out of the Woolwich murder and the cynical political opportunism of those calling, inevitably, for greater powers for the spies and a reintroduction of the proposed Communuications Data Bill, dubbed the “snoopers’ charter”.

Here is the link.

Judicial rendition – the UK-US extradition treaty is a farce

Sometimes I sit here reading the news -  on subjects in which I take a deep interest such as the recent police investigation into UK spy complicity in torture, where the police decided not to prosecute – and feel that I should comment.  But really, what would be the point?  Of course the police would not find enough concrete evidence, of course no individual spies would be held to account, despite the fact that the British government has already paid massive settlements to the victims.

BelhadjNow there are reports that the police will be investigating MI6 involvement in the extraordinary rendition and torture of two Libyans.  The case appears bang to rights, with documentary evidence that high-ranking MI6 officers and government ministers were involved in and approved the operation.  Yet I'm willing to bet that the plods at Scotland Yard will still not be able to find the requisite evidence to prosecute anybody. 

The inevitable (and probably wished-for outcome on the part of the authorities) is that people become so weary and cynical about the lack of justice that they stop fighting for it.  And they can temporarily succeed, when we succumb to cynical burnout.

But the case reported in today's Daily Mail, that of a young British student facing extradition to the US despite having broken no laws in the UK, succeeded in rousing my wrath. 

Richard_ODwyerThe hapless 23-year old Richard O'Dwyer faces 10 years in a maximum security American prison.  His crime, according to the US, is that he set up a UK-based website that provided links to other international websites that allegedly hosted copyright material.

This case is so troubling on so many levels it is difficult to know where to begin.  There are issues around the crackdown of US corporate copyright law, issues around the inequality of the unilateral Extradition Act 2003, and historic questions of US hypocrisy about extradition.

So let's start with the unsupported allegations against poor Richard O'Dwyer.  He is a student who built a website that collated a list of sites in other countries that host films, books and music for free download.  O'Dwyer did not himself download any copyrighted material, and the websites he linked to were apparently within jurisdictions where such downloads are not illegal.  Providing a signpost to other legal international sites is manifestly not a crime in the UK and he has never been charged.

However, over the last couple of decades the US entertainment lobby has been fighting a vicious rearguard action against copyright infringement, starting with the music, then the film, and now the publishing industry.  The lobbyists have proved victorious and the invidious SOPA and PIPA laws are soon to be passed by the US Congress.  All well and good you might think – it's one of those mad US issues.  But oh no, these laws have global reach.  What might be legal within the UK might still mean that you fall foul of US legislation.

Gary_McKinnon2Which is where the Extradition Act 2003 becomes particularly threatening.  This law means that any UK citizen can be demanded by and handed over to the US with no prima facie evidence.  As we have seen in the appalling case of alleged hacker Gary McKinnon, it matters not if the "crime" were committed on UK soil (as you can see here, McKinnon's case was not prosecuted by the UK authorities in 2002.  If it had been, he would have received a maximum sentence of 6 months' community service: if extradited he is facing up to 70 years in a US maximum security prison).

The UK government has tried to spin the egregious Libyan cases as "judicial rendition" rather than "extraordinary kidnapping" or whatever it's supposed to be.  So I think it would be accurate to call Gary McKinnon's case "judicial rendition" too, rather than boring old extradition.

Richard O'Dwyer apparently didn't commit anything that could be deemed to be a crime in the UK, and yet he is still facing extradition to the US and a 10 year stretch.  The new US laws like SOPA threaten all of us, and not just with judicial rendition. 

As I have mentioned before, digital rights activist Cory Doctorow summed it up best: "you can't make a system that prevents spying by secret police and allows spying by media giants".  These corporate internet laws are a Trojan horse that will threaten our basic civil liberties across the board.

So now to my third point.  The hypocrisy around the American stance on extradition with the UK is breathtaking.   The UK has been dispatching its own citizens off at an alarming rate to the "tender" mercies of the US judicial system since 2004, with no prima facie evidence required.  In fact, the legal proof required to get a UK citizen extradited to the US is less than that required for someone to be extradited from one US state to another. 

The US, on the other hand, delayed ratifying the law until 2006, and the burden of proof required to extradite someone to the UK remains high, so it is unbalanced not only in concept but also in practice.  And this despite the fact that the law was seen as crucial to facilitate the transfer of highly dangerous terrorist suspects in the endless "war on terror".

Why has this happened?  One can but speculate about the power of the Irish lobby in the US government, as Sir Menzies Campbell did during a parliamentary debate about the Act in 2006.   However, it is well known that the US was remarkably coy about extraditing IRA suspects back to the UK to stand trial during the 30-year "Troubles" in Northern Ireland.  We even have well-known apologists such as Congressman Peter King, the Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee attempting to demonise organisations like Wikileaks as terrorist organisations, while at the same being a life-long supporter of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional IRA.

UK_poodleThe double standards are breath-taking.  The US dictates an extradition treaty with the UK to stop terrorism, but then uses this law to target those who might potentially, tangentially, minutely threaten the profits of the US entertainment mega-corps; and then it delays ratifying and implementing its own law for potentially dubious political reasons.

And the UK government yet again rolls over and takes it, while innocent students such as Richard O'Dwyer must pay the price.  As his mother is quoted as saying: "if they can come for Richard, they can come for anyone".

Security forces endanger agent lives, not whistleblowers…

Our esteemed governments, intelligence agencies and police forces always attack whistleblowers and organisations such as Wikileaks on the grounds that unauthorised disclosure of classified information puts the lives of agents and informants at risk.

Bob_QuickAgent identities, along with ongoing operations (as Former Assistant Commissioner of Special Operations at the Metropolitan Police, Bob Quick, found to his cost two years ago) and sensitive investigatory techniques, are indeed in need of protection.  Much else is not – particularly information about lies, cover-ups, incompetence and crime.

Indeed, once you delve behind the screaming headlines that whistleblower disclosures have risked agent lives, you often find that this is absolutely not the case – in fact their motivation is usually to prevent further needless torture, death and war crimes.  So the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, was forced to admit that Wikileaks had indeed not endangered lives with the publication of the Afghan War Logs last year, and David Shayler's trial judge, in his formal ruling, stated that "no lives had been put at risk" by his whistleblowing.

Instead, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the security forces are the very organisations not taking the protection and aftercare of their agents seriously.

Mark Kennedy, the undercover police officer who spied on UK environmental protest groups, has gone on the record to say that the supervision, care and psychological support provided to him was woefully lacking.   Kevin Fulton, a serving soldier who infiltrated the IRA on behalf of the notorious Forces Research Unit, has similarly been hung out to dry and is now attempting to sue the British Government to provide the promised, adequate aftercare.

Martin McGartland, who worked as a source in Northern Ireland at the height of "The Troubles" and is credited with saving 50 lives, has also borne the brunt of this laissez faire attitude since he stopped working for intelligence.  He has the scars to prove it too, having survived assassination attempts, and once blindly leaping out of a third floor window in an frantic attempt to escape torture at the hands of the IRA.  As he says:

“Who would put their lives on the line nowadays when they can read what happens to those who did?”, McGartland says. “I can’t go home and the IRA are supposed to be a former terrorist group. Nobody is hunting down my attackers and nobody in authority seems to care. That has a direct impact on recruiting agents…."

Denis_DonaldsonThe most egregious case is of Denis Donaldson, Sinn Fein's Head of Administration at Stormont in Northern Ireland who was outed as a MI5 and police spy by Gerry Adams in 2006.  He was brutally murdered a few months later, allegedly by the Real IRA, having received little protection or support from his erstwhile spook handlers.

So who is really more likely expose current agents to the risk of psychological damage, torture and death, or to deter future agents from volunteering to work with the security forces?  Principled whistleblowers who expose crime and incompetence with due care for protecting real secrets, or the spooks who take a cavalier approach to the pastoral care of their agents, and then hang them out to dry once their usefulness is at an end?

The murder of Pat Finucane

Moving swiftly past the prurient, thigh-rubbing glee that most of the old media seems to be exhibiting over the alleged details of Julian Assange's love life, let's re-focus on the heart of the Wikileaks disclosures, and most importantly the aims underpinning them: transparency, justice, and an informed citizenry living within fully-functioning democracies.  Such quaint notions.

In the media maelstrom of the Cablegate disclosures, and the resulting infantile and thuggish threats of the American political class, is easy to lose sight of the fact that many of the leaked documents refer to scandals, corruption and cover-ups in a range of countries, not just the good old US of A.

Pat_FinucaneOne document that recently caught my attention related to the notorious murder twenty-one years ago of civil rights activist, Pat Finucane, in Northern Ireland.  Finucane was a well-known lawyer who was shot and killed in front of his wife and three small children.  There has long been speculation that he was targeted by Protestant terrorist groups, in collusion with the NI secret police, the army's notorious and now-disbanded Forces Research Unit (FRU), and/or MI5.

Well, over a decade ago former top plod, Lord (John) Stevens, began an inquiry that did indeed establish such state collusion, despite having his inquiry offices burnt out in the process by person/s allegedly unknown half-way through the investigation.  Stevens fought on, producing a damning report in 2003 confirming the notion of state collusion with Irish Loyalist terrorist activities, but never did clarify exactly what had happened to poor Pat Finucane.

However, Finucane's traumatised family has never stopped demanding justice.  The recent disclosure shines a light on some of the back-room deals around this scandal, and for that I'm sure many people thank Wikileaks.

The "Troubles" in Northern Ireland – such a quintessentially British understatement, in any other country it would have been called a civil war – were deceptive, murky and vicious on both sides.  "Collusion" is an elastic word that stretches beyond the strict notion of the state.  It is well-known that the US organistion, NORAID, supported by many Americans claiming Irish ancestry, was a major fundraising channel for, um, Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional IRA, from the 1970s onwards. 

Peter_kingSuch networks provided even more support than Colonel Gaddafi of Libya with his arms shipments, and the cash well only dried up post-9/11.  As you can see in this recent article in the The Telegraph, even the incoming Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, New York Congressman Peter King (who ironically called for the designation of Wkileaks as a "foreign terrorist organisation") appears to have been a life long supporter of Sinn Fein.

With this in the back of our minds, it appears that Dublin and Washington kept pushing for a full inquiry into Finucane's murder – and in 2005 it looked like MI5 would finally co-operate

However, the devil was in the detail. Coincidentally, 2005 was the year that the UK government rushed through a new law, the Inquiries Act, which scandalously allowed any department under investigation (in this case MI5) to dictate the terms and scope of the inquiry. 

Collusion by any state in the unlawful arrest, torture, and extrajudicial murder of people – whether its own citizens or others – is state terrorism.  Let's not mince our words here.  Amnesty International provides a clear definition of this concept.

As the The Guardian  article about Finucane so succintly puts it:

"When a state sanctions the killing of citizens, in particular citizens who are lawyers, it puts the rule of law and democracy in jeopardy. And when a state enlists auxiliary assassins, it cedes its monopoly over state secrets: it may feel omnipotent, but it is also vulnerable to disclosure."

Mercenaries1Indeed.  Northern Ireland was like a Petri dish of human rights abuses: torture, Diplock courts (aka military tribunals), kidnappings, curfews, shoot-to-kill, informers, and state collusion in assassinations.

The infection has now spread.  These are precisely the tactics currently used by the US, the UK and their "auxiliary assassins" across great swathes of the Middle East.  Perhaps this explains why our nation states have been outflanked and have ceded their monopoly over secrets.

Will justice ever be done?  In the past I would have said, sadly, that would be highly unlikely.  However,  courageous organisations like Wikileaks and its ilk are improving the odds.

Blitz Spirit?

Sir_Paul_StephensonThe most senior police officer in the UK, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Sir Paul Stephenson no less, is saying that the British citizens are not taking the threat of terrorism seriously enough.  "Al Qaeda" could strike at any minute, the enemy is within etc, etc….

Now, for a man of his seniority, one presumes that he has served as a policeman for a fair few years – possibly in the 1970s, certainly the 80s and 90s.  Which means that he should have a memory of what it means to be under the real, daily threat of bombs exploding that aimed to maim, kill and terrorize the civilian population of London and the rest of the UK.  After all, throughout those decades the Provisional IRA, backed by the fund-raising activities of certain American citizens and Colonel Gaddafi of Libya – that erstwhile patron of freedom fighters everywhere, now a staunch ally of the West in the "war on terror" – was pretty much putting bombs down at will on UK streets.

Bishopsgate_Bombing_1993During these years the UK has endured Lockerbie, Omagh, Bishopsgate, Canary Wharf, and Manchester, to name but a few major atrocities.  A good summary of the terrorist attacks against London alone over the last 150 years can be found here, with the first Tube bombing occurring in 1885.  A pilot, Patrick Smith, also recently wrote a great article about aircraft security and the sheer scale of the terrorist threat to the West in the 1980s – and asks a very pertinent question: just how would we collectively react to such a stream of atrocities now? 

Putting aside my professional life at the time, I have personal memories of what it was like to live and work in London in the 1990s under the shadow of terrorism.  I remember making my way to work when I was a fledging MI5 intelligence officer in 1991 and commuting through Victoria train station in London 10 minutes before a bomb, planted in a rubbish bin, exploded on the station concourse.  One person was killed, and many sustained severe injuries.  One person had their foot blown off – the image haunted me for a long time.

I also vividly remember, two years later, sitting at my desk in MI5's Mayfair office, and hearing a dull thud in the background – this turned out to be a bomb exploding outside Harrods department store in Knightsbridge.  And let's not forget the almost daily disruption to the tube and rail networks during the 90s because of security alerts.  Every Londoner was exhorted to watch out for, and report, any suspicious packages left at stations or on streets.  Yet because of the preceding couple of decades, this was already a normal way of life in the city. 

Keep_Calm_and_Carry_On_PosterLondoners have grown used to inconvenience; they grumble a bit about the disruption and then get on with their lives – echoes of the "keep calm and carry on" mentality that evolved during the Blitz years.  In the 1990s the only noticeable change to London's diurnal rhythm was that there were fewer US tourists clogging up the streets – an early indication of the disproportionate, paranoid US reaction to a perceived terrorist threat.

Separate from the IRA, in 1994 a car bomb exploded outside the Israeli embassy in Kensington, London.  Despite initial reports that Iranian-backed groups were responsible (and, it turns out, MI5 may have dropped the ball), Palestinian activists were blamed and convicted, wrongly it turns out, as MI5 assessed that the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, had pulled a dirty trick.

Terrorism on the streets of London was nothing new.  In the early 1980s my father was in London attending an investigative journalism course and narrowly missed two bombings – one in a restaurant at Marble Arch a couple of hours after he and the rest of the course members had been eating there, and another later that night close to the hotel he was staying in at Lancaster Gate. 

Dawson's_Field_VC10My Pa had another near miss in 1970 when he was a young airline pilot flying VC-10s around the world for BOAC. He was supposed to be the pilot of the VC-10 that ended up at Dawson's Field in Jordan – hijacked by members of the PFLP and eventually blown up.  He had been prevented from flying from Bahrain that day as he was suffering a bad dose of the 'flu.

To this day, his view about both these incidents is to shrug and carry on.  Yes, it was a close shave, but if you allow incidents like that to colour the rest of your life, then the concept of terrorism has already won.

The UK and its citizens have had plenty of hands-on experience of living with the reality of war, political violence and terrorism.   As a result, I'm constantly flabbergasted by the global security crackdown since 9/11 and particularly in the UK after 7th July 2005.  It was ghastly, and my heart bleeds for the victims, families, and survivors, but major terrorist atrocities are hardly new to the UK. 

Gerard_Conlan_Guildford_4_releaseThe UK government seems now to have forgotten hard-learned lessons from the 1970s and 80s in the war in Northern Ireland: that draconian measures – torture, shoot to kill, internment, military-style tribunals -  not only don't work, but also are counter-productive and act as recruiting grounds for terrorist groups.  The flagrant miscarriages of justice around cases like the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six reinforced this perspective.  

And the UK has not been alone in Europe when it comes to living with the daily reality of terrorism: the Spanish have endured Basque separatist attacks for four decades, as have the French – in addition to those perpetrated in Paris with devastating results by Algerian Islamic groups in the 1990s.  Germany successfully dealt with the Baader-Meinhof Gang (Red Army Faction), and other European countries, such as Belgium and Italy, have endured Operation Gladio style terrorist attacks over recent decades.

But in all those years, none of our countries gave up on the concept of basic values and freedoms – indeed they seemed to learn useful lessons from the repressive, failed experiment in Northern Ireland.  So why are we now falling in line, unthinkingly, with the hysterical and brutal US response post 9/11? 

Das_leben_der_anderenIn the UK we are effectively living under a Big Brother surveillance state, as I have previously and extensively written.  Other Northern European countries are constantly pressured to fall in line with the US "war on terror" fear mentality.  To its credit Germany is reacting cautiously, even in the face of the current, hyped-up terror threat.  But then we Europeans know the lessons of history – we've lived them, and Germany more than most.  The ghosts of the Gestapo and the Stasi still create a frisson of fear in the collective Germanic memory.

But returning to that doughty crime fighter, Sir Paul Stephenson.  The day after he ticked off the UK public for not taking terrorism seriously enough, he is once again in the media, predicting an era of growing civil unrest in the wake of the student riots in London, and chillingly stating that the rules of the game had changed.  Forget about trying to negotiate with campaigners – now the only way to deal with them is to spy on them, as The Guardian reported:

"We have been going through a period where we have not seen that sort of violent disorder," Stephenson said. "We had dealt with student organisers before and I think we based it too much on history. If we follow an intelligence-based model that stops you doing that. Obviously you realise the game has changed. Regrettably, the game has changed and we must act."

Big_BrotherLast year the same newspaper revealed that ACPO, the senior police officers' private association, was running an illegal unit to spy on "domestic extremists" (read politically active citizens).  In response to the public outcry, the head of ACPO, Sir Hugh Orde, promised to stop this Stasi-like practice.  In the wake of the student protests, Sir Paul will probably see a renewed need for the unit, no doubt under another name.  Big Brother grows apace – because, of course, we all know that Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia……

Remember, remember the 5th of November….

Annie_on_Conviction_DayNovember 5th has long had many levels of resonance for me: Bonfire Night of course, when I was a child – fireworks in the garden and burnt baked potatoes from the fire; since the age of seven, celebrating the birthday of my oldest friend; and, since 2002, the memory of having to stand up in the witness stand in an Old Bailey court room in London to give a mitigation plea at the trial of my former partner, seeing his sentence reduced from the expected thirteen months to a "mere" six, and then having to deal for weeks with the media fall-out.  A strange mix of memories.

David Shayler endured a "Kafkaesque trial" in 2002 in the sense that he was not allowed to make a defence due to government-imposed gagging orders, despite all the relevant material already having been widely pubished in the media.  The issues were summed up well in this New Statesman article from that time. 

But the current debate about control orders used against so-called terrorist suspects – my emphasis – adds a whole new dimension to the notorious phrase.

This recent, excellent article in The Guardian by lawyer Matthew Ryder about control orders sums it up.  How can you defend a client if you are not even allowed access to the information that has led to the original accusation?

The Liberal Democrats, in the run-up to the General Election earlier this year, pledged to do away with control orders, as they are an affront to the British model of justice.  However, MI5 is putting up a strong defence for their retention, but then they would, wouldn't they? 

Much of the "secret" evidence that leads to a control order appears to come from telephone intercept, but why on earth can this evidence not be revealed in a court of law?  It's not like the notion of telephone bugging is a state secret these days, as I argued in The Guardian way back in 2005.

BirmsixBearing all of the above in mind, do have a read of this interview with Paddy Hill, one of the victims of the notorious wrongful convictions for the IRA Birmingham pub bombings in 1974.  After being arrested, threatened, tortured and traumatised, he was forced to confess to a terrible crime he had not committed. 

As a result, he had to endure sixteen years in prison before his innocence was confirmed.  He is still suffering the consequences, despite having found the strength to set up the "Miscarriages of Justice Organisation" to help other victims.

And then have a think about whether we should blindly trust the word of the security forces and the police when they state that we have to give away yet more of our hard-won freedoms and rights in the name of the ever-shifting, ever-nebulous "war on terror". 

Do we really need to hold terrorist suspects in police cells for 28 days without charge?  Will we really continue to allow the head of MI6 to get away with blithely asserting, unchallenged, that British intelligence does its very best not to "benefit" from information extracted via unthinkable torture, as former UK ambassador Craig Murray so graphically described in his blog on 29th October?

I've said it before, and I shall say it again: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was put in place for a reason in 1948.  Let's all draw a breath, and remember, remember…..


Gareth Peirce on Torture, Secrecy and the British State

Gareth_Peirce_1Leading UK human rights lawyer, Gareth Peirce, has written a powerful and eloquent article in the London Review of Books about the British state's involvement in torture. 

She also broadens out the argument to look at the fundamental societal problems – lack of accountability, secrecy, the use and abuse of the concept of "national security"  – that created a culture that facilitates and condones torture.

Gareth has fought for victims of injustice for four decades, focusing primarily on terrorism and intelligence issues. 

A long piece, but stick with.  It's worth it!

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.

Spooks leave UK vulnerable to Russian mafia

According to the Daily Mail this week, Russian security expert, Andrei Soldatov, reckons the UK is wide open to the threat of the Russian mafia. He primarily blames the froideur that has blighted Anglo-Russian relations since the Litvinenko affair. However, he also states that MI5 no longer has a role to play in investigating organised crime, and that has contributed to our vulnerability.

Naturally resisting the temptation to say that MI5’s involvement would not necessarily have afforded us any meaningful protection, I would say that this is down to a fundamental problem in how we organise our response to threats to the national security of this country.

The security infrastructure in the UK has evolved over the last century into a terribly British muddle. For historic reasons, we have a plethora of intelligence agencies, all competing for funding, power and prestige: MI5, MI6, GCHQ, the Metropolitan Police Special Branch (MPSB), special branches in every other police force, military intelligence, and HM Revenue and Customs et al. Each is supposed to work with the other, but in reality they guard their territory and intelligence jealously. After all, knowledge is power.

MI5 and MPSB have always been the lead intelligence organisations operating within the UK. As such, their covert rivalry has been protracted and bitter, but to the outside world they appeared to rub along while MI5 was primarily focusing on espionage and political subversion and the Met concentrated on the IRA. However, after the end of the Cold War, MI5 had to find new targets or lose staff, status and resources.

In 1992 the then Home Secretary, Ken Clarke, announced that MI5 was taking over the lead responsibility for investigating IRA activity on the UK mainland – work that had been done by MPSB for over 100 years. Victory was largely credited to clever Whitehall manoeuvering on the part of the head of MI5, Stella Rimington. The Met were furious, and the transfer of records was fractious, to say the least.

Also, there was a year’s delay in the handover of responsibility. So MI5 artificially maintained the perceived threat levels posed by political subversion in order to retain its staff until the transition was complete. This meant that there was no real case for the aggressive investigation of subversive groups in the UK – which made all such operations illegal. Staff in this section, including me, vociferously argued against this continued surveillance, rightly stating that such investigations were thereby flagrantly illegal, but the senior management ignored us in the interests of preserving their empires.

However, in the mid-1990s, when peace appeared to be breaking out in Northern Ireland and beyond, MI5 had to scout around for more work to justify its existence. Hence, in 1996, the Home Secretary agreed that they should play a role in tackling organised crime – but only in a supporting role to MPSB. This was never a particularly palatable answer for the spooks, so it is no surprise that they have subsequently dropped this area of work now that the threat from “Al Qaeda” has grown. Terrorism has always been perceived as higher status work. And of course this new threat has led to a slew of increased resources, powers and staff for MI5, not to mention the opening of eight regional headquarters outside London.

But should we really be approaching a subject as serious as the protection of our national security in such a haphazard way, based solely on the fact that we have these agencies in existence, so let’s give them some work?

If we are really faced with such a serious terrorist threat, would it not be smarter for our politicians to ask the basic questions: what is the realistic threat to our national security and the economic wellbeing of the state, and how can we best protect ourselves from these threats? If the most effective answer proves to be a new, dedicated counter-terrorism organisation, so be it. We Brits love a sense of history, but a new broom will often sweep clean.


CCTV doesn’t prevent crime

So, the argument about CCTV and our big brother society rumbles on. A senior policeman, Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville of the Visual Images, Identifications and Detections Office (Viido) at New Scotland Yard, has been quoted as saying that only 3 per cent of crimes have been solved by CCTV evidence. Despite the UK having the highest per capita number of CCTVs in the world, this brave new world has failed to make us safer.

A few other police forces, and naturally the security companies flogging the kit, say that CCTV has at least dramatically reduced opportunistic crimes. Who should we believe?

What cannot be disputed is the fact that there are well over 4,000,000 CCTVs in this country, and the organisation, Privacy International, assesses that we are the most watched citizenry in Europe.

While some law-abiding citizens say they feel intimidated by CCTV and how the information could potentially be misused, most people seem not to care. In fact, the majority apparently feel safer if they can see CCTV on the streets, even if this pervasive surveillance has in no way discouraged crimes of violence. So why this gap between perception and reality?

One of my pet theories has always been to blame Big Brother. No, not the book. I have always been flummoxed by the popularity of the TV show and the plethora of reality TV spin-offs. My instinctive reaction was that it was similar to being “groomed” to accept round-the-clock intrusion into our personal lives. More than accept – desire it. The clear message is that such surveillance can lead to instant fame, wealth and access to the Z-list parties of London. And for that we are sleep-walking into a real Orwellian nightmare.

Slightly flippant theories aside, it is interesting that one of the most cited examples of the need for CCTV was the Bishopsgate bombing in London in 1993. In this case a lorry bomb, filled with a tonne of home made explosive (HME) was detonated in the heart of the city of London by the IRA. One person was killed, many were injured, and hundreds of millions of pounds worth of damage was caused, not to mention the fact threat the IRA scored a huge publicity coup.

But this had nothing to do with the lack or otherwise of CCTV in the streets of the City. It was an intelligence failure, pure and simple.

This attack could and should have been prevented. It occurred while I was working in MI5, and it was widely known in the service at the time that the bomber should have been arrested six months before during a surveillance operation. Despite the fact that he was seen checking out another lorry bomb in storage, he was allowed to walk free and escape to the Republic of Ireland due to procedural cock-ups. Months later, he returned to the City and bombed Bishopsgate.

By relying increasingly on technologies to protect us, we are following in the footsteps of the Americans. They have always had an over-reliance on gadgets and gizmos when seeking to investigate criminals and terrorists: satellite tracking, phone taps, bugs. But this hoovering up of information is never an adequate replacement for precise investigative work. Plus, any criminal or terrorist worth their salt these days knows not to discuss sensitive plans electronically.

Scatter-gun approaches to gathering intelligence, such as blanket surveillance, still at this stage require human beings to process and assess it for evidential use. That, according to DCI Neville, is part of the problem. There is just too much coming in, not enough staff, insufficient co-operation between forces, and the job lacks perceived status within the police.

The other problem of an over-reliance on technology is that it can always be hacked. The most recent hacking has broken the RFID chips that we all carry in our passports, Oyster cards and the planned ID cards. New technologies cannot guarantee that our personal data is secure, so rather than protecting us, they make us more liable to crimes such as identity theft.

So once again national and local government bodies have rushed to buy up technology, without fully thinking through either its application or its usefulness. And without fully assessing the implications for a free society. Just because the technology exists, it does not mean that it is fit for purpose, nor that it will make us safer.