The spies and Libya — time to dust off their conscience

As I’ve men­tioned before, the former heads of UK intel­li­gence agen­cies have a charm­ing habit of speak­ing out in sup­port of the rule of law, civil liber­ties, pro­por­tion­al­ity and plain com­mon sense — but usu­ally only after they have retired. 

Per­haps at their leav­ing parties their con­sciences are extrac­ted from the secur­ity safe, dus­ted off and giv­en back  — along with the gold watch?

DearloveEven then, post-retire­ment, they might try to thrice-deny poten­tially world-chan­ging inform­a­tion, as Sir Richard Dear­love did when ques­tioned by the fear­less and fear­somely bright Silkie Carlo about the leaked Down­ing Street Memo at his recent speech at the Cam­bridge Uni­on.  (The links are in two parts, as the film had to be mirrored on You­tube — Dear­love claimed copy­right on the orgin­al Love Police film and had it taken down.)

And “out of con­text”, my left foot — he could poten­tially have saved mil­lions of lives in the Middle East if he’d gone pub­lic with his con­sidered pro­fes­sion­al opin­ion about the intel­li­gence facts being fit­ted around a pre­con­ceived war policy in the run-up to the inva­sion of Iraq.

Would­n’t it be lovely if these esteemed ser­vants of the state, replete with respect, status and hon­ours, could actu­ally take a stand while they are still in a pos­i­tion to influ­ence world events?

Eliza_Manningham_BullerMy former boss, Bar­on­ess Eliza Man­ning­ham-Buller, has been unusu­ally voci­fer­ous since her retire­ment in 2007 and elev­a­tion to the peer­age.  She used her maid­en speech to the House of Lords to object to the pro­posed plans to increase police deten­tion of ter­ror­ist sus­pects without charge from 28 to 42 days; she recently sug­ges­ted that the “war on ter­ror” is unwinnable and that we should, if pos­sible, nego­ti­ate with “Al Qaeda” (well, it worked with the Pro­vi­sion­al IRA); and that the “war on drugs” had been lost and the UK should treat recre­ation­al drug use as a health rather than a crim­in­al issue. She steals all my best lines.…

But cred­it where cred­it is due.  Des­pite the fact that she used the full power of the Brit­ish state to pur­sue ter­ror­ist sus­pects up until 2007 and invest­ig­ate drug bar­ons in the 1990s, she did appar­ently try to make a stand while en poste in the run-up to the Iraq War.  Last year she gave evid­ence to the Chil­cot Enquiry, stat­ing that she had offi­cially briefed the gov­ern­ment that an inva­sion of Iraq would increase the ter­ror­ist threat to the UK.

So it’s obvi­ous that once a UK Prime Min­is­ter has come over all Churchil­lian he tends to ignore the coun­sel of his chief spooks, as we’ve seen with both the Down­ing Street Memo the Chil­cot Enquiry. 

With that in mind, I’ve read with interest the recent press reports that the UK author­it­ies appar­ently knew about Col­on­el Gad­dafi retain­ing stock­piles of mus­tard gas and sar­in (des­pite the fact that the world was assured in 2004 that it was his renun­ci­ation of WMDs that allowed him back into the inter­na­tion­al dip­lo­mat­ic fold) . 

So the key ques­tion is surely: is this anoth­er erro­neous45 minutes from attack” moment, with Gad­dafi’s alleged stock­piles of WMD a per­fect scare­mon­ger­ing pre­text to push for a full-on régime change in Libya; or is this genu­ine, and we were all lied to about Gad­dafi’s destruc­tion of his WMD stock­piles for eco­nom­ic advant­age and fat, juicy oil con­tracts?

The Wall Street Journ­al recently ran an art­icle quot­ing the con­cern of “gov­ern­ment insiders” about Gad­dafi’s poten­tial future ter­ror­ism threat against the West, up to and includ­ing WMDs, should he cling on to power.  Well, yes, it would hardly be sur­pris­ing if he were now to be as mad as a wasp with his ex-new best bud­dies.  Des­pite the sor­did rap­proche­ment in the last dec­ade, he has been for much of his life an invet­er­ate enemy of the West and spon­sor of world­wide ter­ror­ism.

Rather than wait­ing for his “K” and his retire­ment, would it not be won­der­ful if the cur­rent head of MI5, Jonath­an Evans, could extract his con­science from that dusty secur­ity safe and make a use­ful and informed state­ment to shed some light on the mess that the Liby­an war is rap­idly becom­ing?  He could poten­tially change the course of world his­tory and save untold lives.

UK spies continue to lie about torture

Jonathan_EvansWhat a dif­fer­ence a year makes in the may­fly minds of the old media. 

In Feb­ru­ary 2010 The Guard­i­an’s res­id­ent spook watch­er, Richard Norton-Taylor, repor­ted that the serving head of MI5, Jonath­an Evans, had been forced in 2008 to con­fess to the cred­u­lous and com­pli­ant Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee in Par­lia­ment that the spies had lied, yet again, about their com­pli­city in tor­ture.

This con­fes­sion came shortly after the ISC had released its “author­it­at­ive” report about rendi­tion and tor­ture, assert­ing that there had been no such com­pli­city.  How did the ISC get this so utterly wrong?

It turns out that in 2006 Bar­on­ess Eliza Man­ning­ham-Buller, Evans’s pre­de­cessor in the MI5 hot-seat, had misled the ISC about MI5’s aware­ness of the use of tor­ture against ter­ror­ist sus­pects, par­tic­u­larly the hap­less Binyam Mohamed, whose case was wend­ing its way through the Brit­ish courts.  Bul­ly­ing-Man­ner (as she is known in the cor­ridors of power) appears to have been cov­er­ing up for her pre­de­cessor, Sir Steph­en Lander, who was quoted in The Tele­graph in March 2001 as say­ing “I blanche at some of the things I declined to tell the com­mit­tee [ISC] early on”.….

MusharrafBut Evans had to come clean to the ISC because of the Mohamed court case, and Norton-Taylor wrote, by the Grauny’s stand­ards, his fairly hard-hit­ting art­icle last year. 

Yes­ter­day, how­ever, he seems to be back-track­ing frantic­ally.  Fol­low­ing an inter­view by the BBC with former Pakistani Pres­id­ent Per­vez Mush­ar­raf appear­ing to con­firm that MI5 did indeed turn a blind eye to the use of tor­ture, Richard Norton-Taylor and oth­er mem­bers of our esteemed Fourth Estate are once again quot­ing Bar­on­ess Man­ning­ham-Buller­’s dicred­ited li(n)es to the ISC as gos­pel truth, and for­get­ing both the serving head of MI5’s unavoid­able con­fes­sion and the evid­ence from the Mohamed court case itself.

The ISC was put in place fol­low­ing the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act as a demo­crat­ic fig-leaf: it is not a fully-func­tion­ing, inde­pend­ent over­sight com­mit­tee, as it is only able to report on mat­ters of spy policy, fin­ance and admin­is­tra­tion.  It has no powers to invest­ig­ate prop­erly alleg­a­tions of crime, tor­ture or oper­a­tion­al incom­pet­ence, is unable to demand doc­u­ments or inter­view wit­nesses under oath, and is appoin­ted by and answer­able only to the Prime Min­is­ter.  It has been lied to by the spies and seni­or police time and time again — the very people it notion­ally over­sees.  As I have writ­ten before, the ISC has since its incep­tion failed to address many key intel­li­gence mat­ters of the day, instead spend­ing its time nit­pick­ing over details.

In the face of this utter lack of intel­li­gence account­ab­il­ity and trans­par­ency, is it any won­der that sites like Wikileaks have caught the pub­lic’s ima­gin­a­tion?  Wikileaks is an obvi­ous and neces­sary reac­tion to the endem­ic secrecy, gov­ern­ment­al back-scratch­ing and cov­er-ups that are not only wrong in prin­ciple in a notion­al demo­cracy, but have also res­ul­ted dir­ectly in illeg­al wars, tor­ture and the erosion of our tra­di­tion­al freedoms.

The Media and the Spies

The UK main­stream media has made much this week of Home Sec­ret­ary Jac­qui Smith’s asser­tion that MI5 had not reques­ted the government’s pro­posed exten­sion of the impris­on­ment without charge of ter­ror­ist sus­pects from 28 to 42 days.

This state­ment has caused a furore in the UK, and there is a chance that the PM may lose the key vote in Par­lia­ment on this amend­ment tomor­row.

In fact, such has been the uproar that the Dir­ect­or Gen­er­al of MI5, Jonath­an Evans, is repor­ted by Reu­ters to have made a rare pub­lic state­ment:

Since the secur­ity ser­vice is neither a pro­sec­ut­ing author­ity nor respons­ible for crim­in­al invest­ig­a­tions, we are not, and nev­er have been, the appro­pri­ate body to advise the gov­ern­ment on pre-charge deten­tion time lim­its,” he said in a state­ment on the MI5 web­site.

We have not, there­fore, sought to com­ment pub­licly or privately on the cur­rent pro­pos­als, except to say that we recog­nise the chal­lenge posed for the police ser­vice by the increas­ingly com­plex and inter­na­tion­al char­ac­ter of some recent ter­ror­ist cases.”

What par­tic­u­larly strikes me about this is an appar­ently insig­ni­fic­ant phrase, “raised pub­licly or privately”.

In con­trast to the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Com­mis­sion­er Sir Ian Blair, who admit­ted to “unin­ten­tion­ally mis­lead­ing” the par­lia­ment­ary Joint Com­mit­tee charged with assess­ing the need to increase the deten­tion lim­it, Evans had refused to give evid­ence about the 42 day issue. So he has cer­tainly not raised this in a pub­licly account­able way.

It’s the word “private” that intrigues me. It reeks of sotto voce dis­cus­sions between old school chums at the grander gentlemen’s clubs in Lon­don: of unat­trib­ut­able brief­ings between anonym­ous MI5 officers and chosen journ­al­ists; and of cosy lunches with Fleet Street edit­ors in the DG’s din­ing room at Thames House, MI5’s Lon­don HQ.

While Evans denies using this meth­od­o­logy around the 42 day issue, his state­ment con­firms that such private dis­cus­sions do indeed play a part in influ­en­cing policy decisions and media per­cep­tion.

I saw this approach first-hand in the 1990s dur­ing the whis­tleblow­ing years. In fact, it was then that MI5 stepped up its charm offens­ive with politi­cians and journ­al­ists. It was dur­ing one of the first of these cosy media lunches in Thames House, hos­ted by the then DG Steph­en Lander, that the respec­ted BBC Dip­lo­mat­ic Edit­or Mark Urb­an asked a fate­ful ques­tion about the Gad­dafi Plot and was reportedly told by Lander that “he was not here to answer half-baked ques­tions from smart-arse journ­al­ists”. So there were cer­tain short­falls in the charm, even if the lack of account­ab­il­ity held up well.

But there are oth­er, more sin­is­ter ways for the spies to manip­u­late pub­lic opin­ion. MI6 has a sens­it­ive sec­tion called Inform­a­tion Oper­a­tions (I/Ops), which exists purely to set the news agenda for the spies. I/Ops man­ages this either by mas­sa­ging the facts, spin­ning the tone of the story or, more wor­ry­ingly, plant­ing false stor­ies in a qui­es­cent press.

In the 1990s there was a fam­ous case. Col­on­el Gaddafi’s son, Saif Al Islam, applied for a visa to come to Bri­tain. I/Ops planted a com­pletely false story in The Sunday Tele­graph that he was involved in money laun­der­ing with Iran and, lo and behold, MI5 had the per­fect excuse to deny him a visa. Al Islam sub­sequently sued the news­pa­per which, faced with Shayler­’s evid­ence, settled out of court.

A few months ago the ex-head of MI6, Sir Richard Dear­love, gave a talk at the LSE about the intel­li­gence agen­cies and the media. I went along to have a laugh, and was gra­ciously allowed to ask a ques­tion. Nat­ur­ally I raised the issue of I/Ops, its rela­tion­ship with the media, and wheth­er such a role was accept­able in a mod­ern demo­cracy.

In the con­text of the talk, what could have been more per­tin­ent? How­ever, Dear­love declined to answer. In fact, he went so far as to say that such a mat­ter was “with­in the ring of secrecy”. At which point a journ­al­ist from a pres­ti­gi­ous nation­al news­pa­per who was sit­ting next to me, turned and said glee­fully that this at last proved that I/Ops exis­ted. Grat­i­fy­ing as this was, I shall reit­er­ate my ques­tion: is the role of I/Ops accept­able in a mod­ern demo­cracy, where we are sup­posed to enjoy free­dom of inform­a­tion, trans­par­ency and account­ab­il­ity from the powers-that-be?