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.