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.