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.

Agent Names Lost

So the good times keep on rolling for the spook com­munity in the UK.  An officer of the Ser­i­ous Organ­ised Crime Agency (SOCA) appar­ently lost top secret inform­a­tion such as the names of under­cov­er agents while trav­el­ling in Ecuador.

LanderSOCA is a rel­at­ively new agency set up in 2004 to police organ­ised crime, par­tic­u­larly that revolving around the illeg­al drug trade.  The agency has the mis­for­tune to have as Chair­man Steph­en Lander, erstwhile boss of MI5; a man whose man­age­ment style was known as “Stalinesque”. 

Even before this latest blun­der, con­cerns had been raised by SOCA staff about inef­fect­ive and top-heavy man­age­ment (shades of MI5 in the 1990s)and recent ques­tions have been asked about wheth­er the agency was pro­du­cing mean­ing­ful res­ults, as the price of illi­cit drugs has plummeted on UK streets, indic­at­ing a glut of recent imports. 

This latest blun­der will hardly have reas­sured min­is­ters.  Reportedly, the hap­less SOCA officer lost a USB stick con­tain­ing the names of under­cov­er agents involved in the drug war in Ecuador, as well as inform­a­tion relat­ing to 5 years’ worth of invest­ig­a­tions.   The blun­der has reportedly jeop­ard­ised oper­a­tions that have cost in the region of £100 mil­lion.

Agent iden­tit­ies are, rightly, the most pro­tec­ted of secret inform­a­tion.  This is an unfor­giv­able gaff, and yet the officer is appar­ently only facing “dis­cip­lin­ary charges”. 

So, if you are a whis­tleblower expos­ing hein­ous spy crimes, you are put on tri­al and sent to pris­on, even if the tri­al judge acknow­ledges that no lives were ever put at risk through your dis­clos­ures.  How­ever, if you care­lessly leave top secret agent inform­a­tion lying around in hos­tile ter­rit­ory, you don’t even get the sack, let alone face pro­sec­u­tion under the Offi­cial Secrets Act.

I would sug­gest that the next intel­li­gence whis­tleblower to emerge from the shad­ows should simply claim to have dropped a USB stick out­side the offices of a nation­al news­pa­per.  A rap over the knuckles will then be the worst that they face! 

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?