The UK Spies: Ineffective, Unethical and Unaccountable

The text of my art­icle for e-Inter­na­tion­al Rela­tions, March 2008:

The UK Intel­li­gence Com­munity: Inef­fect­ive, Uneth­ic­al and Unac­count­able

The USA and the UK are enmeshed in an appar­ently unend­ing war of attri­tion – sorry peace­keep­ing — in Iraq.  Why? Well, we may remem­ber that the UK was assured by former Prime Min­is­ter Tony Blair, in sin­cere terms, that Sad­dam Hus­sein pos­sessed weapons of mass destruc­tion which could be deployed again Brit­ish interests with­in 45 minutes.  Indeed the press was awash with “45 minutes from Armaged­don” head­lines on 18th March 2003, the day of the cru­cial war debate in the Brit­ish par­lia­ment. The implic­a­tion was that Bri­tain was dir­ectly at threat from the evil Iraqis.

The US var­ied the diet.  George Bush, in his State of the Uni­on address before the war, assured his nation that Iraq had been attempt­ing to buy mater­i­al to make nuc­le­ar weapons from Niger.  The Amer­ic­an media and pub­lic fell for this claim, hook, line and sinker.

What do these two erro­neous claims have in com­mon?  Well, both were “sexed up” for pub­lic con­sump­tion.

We all know now that there nev­er were any WMDs to be found in Iraq.  After 10 years of pun­it­ive sanc­tions, the coun­try simply didn’t have the cap­ab­il­ity, even if it had the will, to devel­op them.  The Niger claim is even more tenu­ous.  This was based on an intel­li­gence report eman­at­ing from the Brit­ish Secret Intel­li­gence Ser­vice (com­monly know as SIS or MI6), which was based on for­ger­ies.

We have had head­line after scream­ing head­line stat­ing that yet anoth­er ter­ror­ist cell has been roun­ded up in Bri­tain. The Ricin plot? The behead­ing of a Brit­ish Muslim ser­vice­man? The liquid bombs on air­planes?  Yet, if one reads the news­pa­pers care­fully, one finds that charges are dropped quietly after a few months.

So, why is this hap­pen­ing?  I can haz­ard a few guesses.  In the 1990s I worked for 6 years as an intel­li­gence officer for MI5, invest­ig­at­ing polit­ic­al “sub­vers­ives”, Irish ter­ror­ists, and Middle East­ern ter­ror­ism.  In late 1996 I, with my then part­ner and col­league Dav­id Shayler, left the ser­vice in dis­gust at the incom­pet­ent and cor­rupt cul­ture to blow the whistle on the UK intel­li­gence estab­lish­ment.  This was not a case of sour grapes – we were both com­pet­ent officers who reg­u­larly received per­form­ance related bonuses.

How­ever, we had grown increas­ingly con­cerned about breaches of the law; ineptitude (which led to bombs going off that could and should have been pre­ven­ted); files on politi­cians; the jail­ing of inno­cent people; illeg­al phone taps; and the illeg­al spon­sor­ing of ter­ror­ism abroad, fun­ded by UK tax-pay­ers.

The key reas­on that we left and went pub­lic is prob­ably one of the most hein­ous crimes – SIS fun­ded an Islam­ic extrem­ist group in Libya to try to assas­sin­ate Col­on­el Gad­dafi in 1996.  The attack failed, but killed inno­cent people.  The attack was also illeg­al under Brit­ish law.  The 1994 intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act, which put SIS on a leg­al foot­ing for the first time in its 80 year his­tory, stated that its officers were immune from pro­sec­u­tion in the UK for illeg­al acts com­mit­ted abroad, if they had the pri­or writ­ten per­mis­sion of its polit­ic­al mas­ter – ie the For­eign Sec­ret­ary.  In this case they did not.

So, the assas­sin­a­tion attempt was not only immor­al, uneth­ic­al and highly reck­less in a volat­ile area of the world, but also illeg­al under Brit­ish law.

In August 1997 we went pub­lic in a nation­al Brit­ish news­pa­per about our con­cerns.  We hoped that the newly-elec­ted Labour gov­ern­ment would take our evid­ence and begin an invest­ig­a­tion of the intel­li­gence agen­cies.  After all, many Labour MPs had been on the receiv­ing end of spook invest­ig­a­tions in their rad­ic­al youth.  Many had also opposed the dra­coni­an UK law, the Offi­cial Secrets Act (OSA 1989), which deprived an intel­li­gence whis­tleblower of a pub­lic interest defence.

How­ever, it was not to be.  I have no proof, but I can spec­u­late that the Labour gov­ern­ment did the spies’ bid­ding for fear of what might be on their MI5 files. They issued an injunc­tion against Dav­id and the nation­al press.  They failed to extra­dite him from France in 1998 but, when he returned vol­un­tar­ily to face trail in the UK in 2000, they lynched him in the media.  They also ensured that, through a series of pre-tri­al leg­al hear­ings, he was not allowed to say any­thing in his own defence and was not able to freely ques­tion his accusers.  Indeed the judge ordered the jury to con­vict.

The whole sorry saga of the Shayler affair shows in detail how the Brit­ish estab­lish­ment will always shoot the mes­sen­ger to pro­tect its own interests.  If the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment had taken Shayler’s evid­ence, invest­ig­ated his dis­clos­ures, and reformed the ser­vices so that they were sub­ject to effect­ive over­sight and had to obey the law, they may well be work­ing more effi­ciently to pro­tect us from threats to our national’s secur­ity.  After all, the focus of their work is now counter-ter­ror­ism, and they use the same resources and tech­niques as the police.  Why should they not be sub­ject to the same checks and bal­ances?

Instead, MI5 and SIS con­tin­ue to oper­ate out­side mean­ing­ful demo­crat­ic con­trol.  Their cul­tures are self-per­petu­at­ing olig­arch­ies, where mis­takes are glossed over and repeated, and where ques­tions and inde­pend­ent thought are dis­cour­aged.  We deserve bet­ter.