UK Intelligence and Security Committee to be reformed?

The Guardian’s spook com­ment­at­or extraordin­aire, Richard Norton-Taylor, has repor­ted that the cur­rent chair of the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee (ISC) in the UK Par­lia­ment, Sir Mal­colm Rif­kind, wants the com­mit­tee to finally grow a pair.  Well, those weren’t quite the words used in the Grauny, but they cer­tainly cap­ture the gist.

If Rifkind’s stated inten­tions are real­ised, the new-look ISC might well provide real, mean­ing­ful and demo­crat­ic over­sight for the first time in the 100-year his­tory of  the three key UK spy agen­cies — MI5, MI6, and GCHQ, not to men­tion the defence intel­li­gence staff, the joint intel­li­gence com­mit­tee and the new Nation­al Secur­ity Coun­cil .

FigleafFor many long years I have been dis­cuss­ing the woe­ful lack of real demo­crat­ic over­sight for the UK spies.  The privately-con­vened ISC, the demo­crat­ic fig-leaf estab­lished under the aegis of the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act (ISA), is appoin­ted by and answer­able only to the Prime Min­is­ter, with a remit only to look at fin­ance, policy and admin­is­tra­tion, and without the power to demand doc­u­ments or to cross-exam­ine wit­nesses under oath.  Its annu­al reports are always heav­ily redac­ted and have become a joke amongst journ­al­ists.

When the remit of the ISC was being drawn up in the early 1990s, the spooks were apo­plect­ic that Par­lia­ment should have any form of over­sight what­so­ever.  From their per­spect­ive, it was bad enough at that point that the agen­cies were put on a leg­al foot­ing for the first time.  Spy think­ing then ran pretty much along the lines of “why on earth should they be answer­able to a bunch of here-today, gone-tomor­row politi­cians, who were leaky as hell and gos­siped to journ­al­ists all the time”?

So it says a great deal that the spooks breathed a huge, col­lect­ive sigh of relief when the ISC remit was finally enshrined in law in 1994.  They really had noth­ing to worry about.  I remem­ber, I was there at the time.

This has been borne out over the last 17 years.  Time and again the spies have got away with telling bare­faced lies to the ISC.  Or at the very least being “eco­nom­ic­al with the truth”, to use one of their favour­ite phrases.  Former DG of MI5, Sir Steph­en Lander, has pub­licly said that “I blanche at some of the things I declined to tell the com­mit­tee [ISC] early on…”.  Not to men­tion the out­right lies told to the ISC over the years about issues like whis­tleblower testi­mony, tor­ture, and counter-ter­ror­ism meas­ures.

But these new devel­op­ments became yet more fas­cin­at­ing to me when I read that the cur­rent Chair of the ISC pro­pos­ing these reforms is no less than Sir Mal­colm Rif­kind, crusty Tory grandee and former Con­ser­vat­ive For­eign Min­is­ter in the mid-1990s.

For Sir Mal­colm was the For­eign Sec­ret­ary notion­ally in charge of MI6 when the intel­li­gence officers, PT16 and PT16/B, hatched the ill-judged Gad­dafi Plot when MI6 fun­ded a rag-tag group of Islam­ic extrem­ist ter­ror­ists in Libya to assas­sin­ate the Col­on­el, the key dis­clos­ure made by Dav­id Shayler when he blew the whistle way back in the late 1990s.

Obvi­ously this assas­sin­a­tion attempt was highly reck­less in a very volat­ile part of the world; obvi­ously it was uneth­ic­al, and many inno­cent people were murdered in the attack; and obvi­ously it failed, lead­ing to the shaky rap­proche­ment with Gad­dafi over the last dec­ade.  Yet now we are see­ing the use of sim­il­ar tac­tics in the cur­rent Liby­an war (this time more openly) with MI6 officers being sent to help the rebels in Benghazi and our gov­ern­ment openly and shame­lessly call­ing for régime change.

Malcolm_RifkindBut most import­antly from a leg­al per­spect­ive, in 1996 the “Gad­dafi Plot” MI6 appar­ently did not apply for pri­or writ­ten per­mis­sion from Rif­kind — which they were leg­ally obliged to do under the terms of the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act (the very act that also estab­lished the ISC).  This is the fabled, but real, “licence to kill” — Sec­tion 7 of the ISA — which provides immunity to MI6 officers for illeg­al acts com­mit­ted abroad, if they have the requis­ite min­is­teri­al per­mis­sion.

At the time, Rif­kind pub­licly stated that he had not been approached by MI6 to sanc­tion the plot when the BBC Pan­or­ama pro­gramme con­duc­ted a spe­cial invest­ig­a­tion, screened on 7 August 1997.  Rifkind’s state­ment was also repor­ted widely in the press over the years, includ­ing this New States­man art­icle by Mark Thomas in 2002.

That said, Rif­kind him­self wrote earli­er this year in The Tele­graph that help should now be giv­en to the Benghazi “rebels” — many of whom appear to be mem­bers of the very same group that tried to assas­sin­ate Gad­dafi with MI6’s help in 1996 — up to and includ­ing the pro­vi­sion of arms.  Rifkind’s view of the leg­al­it­ies now appear to be some­what more flex­ible, whatever his stated pos­i­tion was back in the 90s. 

Of course, then he was notion­ally in charge of MI6 and would have to take the rap for any polit­ic­al fall-out.  Now he can relax into the role of “quis cus­todiet ipsos cus­todes?”.  Such a relief.

I shall be watch­ing devel­op­ments around Rifkind’s pro­posed reforms with interest.

Diamonds and Rust

Diamonds_and_rust_in_the_bullringSo Col­on­el Gad­dafi of Libya has been dish­ing out the dip­lo­mat­ic gifts gen­er­ously to the former US admin­is­tra­tion.  Lis­ted in the pub­lic declar­a­tion are even such items as a dia­mond ring presen­ted to former Sec­ret­ary of State, Condaleeza Rice, and oth­er gifts to the value of $212,000.

This seems a slightly uneven dis­tri­bu­tion of lar­gesse from the Middle East to the West.  Before 9/11 and the ensu­ing war on ter­ror, Gad­dafi was still seen by the west as the head of a “rogue state”.  Bombs, rather than gifts, were more likely to rain down on him.

How­ever, since 2001 he has come back into the fold and is as keen as the coali­tion of the “will­ing” to counter the threat from Islam­ic extrem­ist ter­ror­ists.  So now he’s the new best­est friend of the US and UK gov­ern­ments in this unend­ing fight. 

But that was kind of inev­it­able, wasn’t it?  As a sec­u­lar Middle East­ern dic­tat­or, Gad­dafi has tra­di­tion­ally had more to fear from Islam­ists than has the West.  Par­tic­u­larly when these same Islam­ist groups have received ongo­ing sup­port from those very gov­ern­ments that are now cosy­ing up to Gad­dafi.

Just to remind you, the reas­on I helped Dav­id Shayler in his whis­tleblow­ing on the crimes of MI5 and MI6 was because of just such a plot- the attemp­ted assas­sin­a­tion of Gad­dafi in 1996 that was fun­ded by the UK extern­al intel­li­gence gath­er­ing agency, MI6.  In 1995 Shayler, then the head of the Liby­an sec­tion in MI5,  was offi­cially briefed by his coun­ter­part in MI6, Dav­id Wat­son (oth­er­wise known as PT16/B), about an unfold­ing plot to kill Gad­dafi.  A Liby­an mil­it­ary intel­li­gence officer, sub­sequently code-named Tun­worth, walked in to the Brit­ish embassy in Tunis and asked to speak to the res­id­ent spook. 

Tun­worth said he was the head of a “ragtag group of Islam­ic extrem­ists” (who sub­sequently turned out to have links to Al Qaeda — at a time when MI5 had begun to invest­ig­ate the group), who wanted to effect a coup against Col­on­el Gad­dafi.  They needed fund­ing to do this, and that was where MI6 came in.  As a quid pro quo, Tun­worth prom­ised to hand over the two Lock­er­bie supsects for tri­al in Europe , which had for years been one of MI6’s pri­or­ity tar­gets — not to men­tion all those juicy oil con­tracts for BP et al.

Over the course of about 5 months, MI6 paid Tunworth’s group over $100,000, thereby becom­ing con­spir­at­ors in a murder plot.  Cru­cially, MI6 did not get the pri­or writ­ten per­mis­sion of their polit­ic­al mas­ter, the For­eign Sec­ret­ary, mak­ing this action illeg­al under the terms of the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act

Mani­festly, this coup attempt did not work — Gad­dafi is now a strong ally of our west­ern gov­ern­ments.  In fact, an explo­sion occurred beneath the wrong car in a caval­cade con­tain­ing Gad­dafi as he returned from the Liby­an People’s Con­gress in Sirte.  But inno­cent people died in the explo­sion and the ensu­ing secur­ity shoot-out.

So, MI6 fun­ded an illeg­al, highly reck­less plot in a volat­ile part of world that res­ul­ted in the deaths of inno­cent people.  How more hein­ous a crime could there be?  But to this day, des­pite a leaked MI6 doc­u­ment that proved they knew the exist­ence of the pro­posed plot, and des­pite oth­er intel­li­gence sources back­ing up Shayler’s dis­clos­ures, the UK gov­ern­ment has still refused to hold an enquiry.  Quite the oppos­ite — they threw the whis­tleblower in pris­on twice and tried to pro­sec­ute the invest­ig­at­ing journ­al­ists.

Some people may call me naïve for think­ing that the intel­li­gence agen­cies should not get involved in oper­a­tions like this.  Put­ting aside the retort that the spies often con­flate the idea of the nation­al interest with their own, short-sighted career­ism, I would like to remind such cyn­ics that we are sup­posed to be liv­ing in mod­ern demo­cra­cies, where even the secret state is sup­posed to oper­ate with­in the rule of law and demo­crat­ic over­sight.  Illeg­al assas­sin­a­tion plots, the use of tor­ture, and false flag, state-sponsored ter­ror­ism should remain firmly with­in the retro, pulp-fic­tion world of James Bond.

Spies and the Law

For con­text, here’s a little bit of back­ground inform­a­tion about the UK’s spy agen­cies, and the leg­al con­straints with­in which they are sup­posed to oper­ate.

There are three primary agen­cies: MI5 (the UK Secur­ity Ser­vice), MI6 (Secret Intel­li­gence Ser­vice — SIS) and GCHQ (the Gov­ern­ment Com­mu­nic­a­tions HQ). Bey­ond this inner circle, there is the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Spe­cial Branch (MPSB), the spe­cial branches of every oth­er police force in the UK, mil­it­ary intel­li­gence, and Cus­toms, amongst oth­ers.

MI5 and MI6 were set up in 1909 dur­ing the build up to the First World War, when their remit was to uncov­er Ger­man spies. For the next 80 years they didn’t offi­cially exist and oper­ated out­side the law.

In 1989 MI5 was put on a leg­al foot­ing for the first time when par­lia­ment passed the Secur­ity Ser­vice Act. This stated that it had to work with­in leg­al para­met­ers, and if it wanted to do some­thing that would oth­er­wise be illeg­al, such as break­ing into and bug­ging someone’s house, it had to get the writ­ten per­mis­sion of its polit­ic­al mas­ter, the Home Sec­ret­ary. Without that, MI5 would be break­ing the law just as you or I would be.

MI6 and GCHQ were not put on a leg­al foot­ing until the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act, and are answer­able to the For­eign Sec­ret­ary. The same Act also set up the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee in Par­lia­ment as a sop to demo­crat­ic over­sight. The ISC is respons­ible for over­see­ing the policy, fin­ance and admin­is­tra­tion of the three agen­cies. It has abso­lutely no remit to look at their oper­a­tion­al run­ning, nor can it invest­ig­ate alleged crimes com­mit­ted by them. Even if it could, the ISC has no power to call for wit­nesses or demand doc­u­ments from the spooks. Moreover, the com­mit­tee is appoin­ted by the Prime Min­is­ter, answer­able only to him, and he can vet its find­ings. Much of the ISC’s annu­al reports are blanked out.

When I was recruited by MI5 in the early 1990s, the organ­isa­tion was at great pains to explain that it worked with­in the law, was account­able, and its work was mainly invest­ig­at­ing ter­ror­ism. Once I began work­ing there, this quickly proved to be untrue. MI5 is incom­pet­ent, it breaks the law, con­nives at the impris­on­ment of inno­cent people, illeg­ally bugs people, lies to gov­ern­ment (on whom it holds per­son­al files) and turns a blind eye to false flag ter­ror­ism. This is why I resigned and helped to blow the whistle.

With all this hys­teria about the threat from Al Qaeda, and the ava­lanche of new powers and resources being thrown at the spooks, as well the erosion of our liber­ties, we need to keep a cool head. Why don’t our politi­cians take a step back and ask what pre­cisely are the scale and nature of the threats facing this coun­try, and how can we best police them? As Sir Ian Blair recently showed, we can­not take the secur­ity forces’ words about this at face value.

There’s a lot of his­tor­ic bag­gage attached to MI5 and 6, par­tic­u­larly after their dirty tricks against the left in the 1980s. As they are now primar­ily doing a poli­cing job against ter­ror­ism, why not just clear the decks and start again? Set up a ded­ic­ated counter-ter­ror­ism agency, which is prop­erly account­able to par­lia­ment, as the police already are and the spies are not.

As it stands the UK has the most secret­ive intel­li­gence agen­cies in the west­ern world. They are exempt from the Free­dom of Inform­a­tion Act, and pro­tec­ted by the dra­coni­an Offi­cial Secrets Act. The 1989 OSA makes it a crim­in­al offence for any­one to blow the whistle on crimes com­mit­ted by the spies, and it is no longer pos­sible for a whis­tleblower to argue that they acted in the pub­lic interest.

No oth­er west­ern demo­cracy has spies who are quite so unac­count­able, nor so pro­tec­ted from scru­tiny by the law. The closest ana­lo­gies are prob­ably the intel­li­gence agen­cies of coun­tries such as Libya or Iran. Par­tic­u­larly as we now know that MI5 and MI6 officers are con­niv­ing in extraordin­ary rendi­tion and the use of tor­ture.

Are they leg­al? Yes, now, in the­ory. Do they abide by the law? Only when it suits them. Are they eth­ic­al? Abso­lutely not.