Deja Vu

I had a strong sense of déjà vu today, when I read about the woes of Mrs Green, the bar­ris­ter wife of Tory MP Dami­en Green who was arres­ted last Novem­ber for allegedly encour­aging gov­ern­ment inform­a­tion leaks.

Mr Green was arres­ted under an obscure and antique piece of legis­la­tion for “con­spir­ing to com­mit mis­con­duct in a pub­lic office and aid­ing and abet­ting, coun­selling or pro­cur­ing mis­con­duct in a pub­lic office”.  This, des­pite the fact that civil ser­vice man­dar­ins had per­suaded the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Spe­cial Branch (MPSB) to invest­ig­ate him because he posed a “ser­i­ous threat to nation­al secur­ity”.  The case has now been dropped and reports have now shown that these civil ser­vants sig­ni­fic­antly over­stated the case to spur the police into action.

In such a case the obvi­ous step would have been for the Met to have invoked the dra­coni­an 1989 Offi­cial Secrets Act.  Cer­tainly their heavy-handed response seemed to indic­ate that this was how they were view­ing the grav­ity of the case, even if they were des­per­ately try­ing to avoid the attend­ant scan­dal such a step would have pro­voked.    Spe­cial Branch officers in the Counter-Ter­ror­ism squad are not nor­mally sent to rip apart people’s houses for minor offences.

Which takes me back to the inter­view with the out­raged Mrs Green.  A bar­ris­ter spe­cial­ising in highly con­fid­en­tial child abuse cases, she inno­cently let the secret police enter her home, only to watch in dis­be­lief as they ripped it apart in what sounds to me like a counter-ter­ror­ism style search.  They, of course, found noth­ing rel­ev­ant to their invest­ig­a­tion, but scoured the com­puters, removed the bed­sheets, took away love let­ters between the Greens, and even rifled through the chil­dren’s books.

I sup­pose I was more for­tu­nate than the hap­less Mrs Green.  When the secret police ripped apart my home in the same way back in 1997, I was in Europe with my ex-part­ner and col­league, MI5 whis­tleblower Dav­id Shayler.  After we had exposed the fact that MI5 was shame­lessly break­ing the law, the MPSB had obtained a war­rant that allowed them to search our home for mater­i­al relat­ing to our employ­ment in MI5.  As I was away, they jack­hammered the front door in, and then spent two days rip­ping through the flat in Pimlico.  It had been my home for 4 years.

Nat­ur­ally, the police found noth­ing rel­ev­ant.  That did not deter them from search­ing the place for two days, and tak­ing away bags of pos­ses­sions, includ­ing some of my under­wear, the bed­sheets, pho­to­graphs, and our love let­ters.  They also smashed up chairs and lamps, ripped the bath apart, pulled up the car­pets, and scattered my remain­ing under­wear across the bed­room floor. It looked like they had been play­ing with it.

I saw all this when I returned home a month later, and I felt viol­ated.  I know this is a com­mon reac­tion when one’s home is burgled; but in this case my home had been despoiled by the police, not by crim­in­als.  No doubt, some would say that we, and the Greens, deserved this treat­ment.  After all, we had the temer­ity to expose mal­prac­tice, lies, and crime with­in gov­ern­ment circles.  We, of course, would argue that we had acted for the pub­lic good.

Whatever.  I still think that a counter-ter­ror­ism style search of a whis­tleblower­’s house is over the top and delib­er­ately intimidatory.

The police may have ran­sacked my home, but I was nev­er charged with any offence.  Nor did I ever did get my under­wear or love let­ters back.….

Quick to Miss a Trick

Bob_QuickFormer Assist­ant Com­mis­sion­er of Spe­cial Oper­a­tions at the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police, Bob Quick, has hit the head­lines a couple of times in the last few months — for all the wrong reasons. 

Last Novem­ber he author­ised the arrest of Tory MP Dami­en Green for allegedly encour­aging leaks of sens­it­ive gov­ern­ment inform­a­tion.  This had the knock-on bene­fit of wak­ing MPs up to the fact that we are now liv­ing in a de facto police state.  Well, I sup­pose that must have been a wel­come dis­trac­tion for them.  It must be so dull merely to spend your time devis­ing new and ingeni­ous ways of fid­dling your par­lia­ment­ary expenses. 

This week, Quick was pho­to­graphed enter­ing Down­ing Street with highly clas­si­fied doc­u­ments under his arm about a sens­it­ive UK ter­ror­ist invest­ig­a­tion, which were clearly vis­ible to wait­ing pho­to­graph­ers.  The clearly vis­ible “Secret” brief­ing doc­u­ment detailed an MI5-led oper­a­tion, code­named Path­way, and bounced the counter-ter­ror­ism agen­cies into mak­ing pre­ma­ture arrests of the sus­pects, many of them young Pakistanis in the UK on stu­dent visas.

Out­rage fol­lowed this massive secur­ity lapse.  What on earth was the man doing, openly car­ry­ing secret doc­u­ments?  Pro­tect­ive rules dic­tate that such papers are not allowed out­side HQ unless signed out and in a secur­ity briefcase.  The vol­un­tary press cen­sor­ship com­mit­tee, the Defence, Press and Broad­cast­ing Advis­ory Com­mit­tee, has slapped a ‘D’ Notice all over the story.  Quick has, of course, resigned.  Reportedly, he may even (gasp) face dis­cip­lin­ary pro­ceed­ings with­in the Met.

Is it just me, or people miss­ing a trick here?  This man has dis­closed a highly clas­si­fied intel­li­gence doc­u­ment without per­mis­sion.  In addi­tion, this doc­u­ment con­tained inform­a­tion about an ongo­ing oper­a­tion AND the names of seni­or intel­li­gence officers — accord­ing to MI5 lore two of the most dam­aging types of inform­a­tion that could pos­sibly be dis­closed.  So, why is Quick not facing pro­sec­u­tion under the dra­coni­an 1989 Offi­cial Secrets Act?  He clearly falls under Sec­tion 1(1) of the Act as a noti­fied per­son if he is hand­ling Secret documents:

1(1) A per­son who is or has been—

(a) a mem­ber of the secur­ity and intel­li­gence ser­vices; or

(b) a per­son noti­fied that he is sub­ject to the pro­vi­sions of this subsection,

is guilty of an offence if without law­ful author­ity he dis­closes any inform­a­tion, doc­u­ment or oth­er art­icle relat­ing to secur­ity or intel­li­gence which is or has been in his pos­ses­sion by vir­tue of his pos­i­tion as a mem­ber of any of those ser­vices or in the course of his work while the noti­fic­a­tion is or was in force.

Under these pro­vi­sions, there is no real defence under law.  Leg­al pre­ced­ent in recent OSA tri­als has clearly estab­lished that the reas­on for an unau­thor­ised dis­clos­ure of secrets is irrel­ev­ant.  (The the­or­et­ic­al and untested sub­sequent defence of “neces­sity” has no bear­ing on this par­tic­u­lar case.)  Wheth­er the breach occurs due to prin­cipled whis­tleblow­ing or a mis­take does­n’t mat­ter: the clear bright line against dis­clos­ure has been crossed and pro­sec­u­tion inex­or­ably follows.

Except if you have suf­fi­ciently seni­or­ity, it appears.….

MPs object to police state

Dgreen An inter­est­ing polit­ic­al row has erup­ted this week in the UK about the arrest of the oppos­i­tion Tory MP, Dami­en Green, who is also the Shad­ow Min­is­ter for Immig­ra­tion.  He was arres­ted on Thursday for alleged breaches of an obscure com­mon law  “aid­ing and abet­ting mis­con­duct in pub­lic office”.

Reports indic­ate that the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Spe­cial Branch, or as the news­pa­pers would have it the “anti-ter­ror­ism branch” was called in to invest­ig­ate leaks from the Home Office about immig­ra­tion policy, that Green was using these leaks to score points off the gov­ern­ment, and the Home Sec­ret­ary Jac­qui Smith in particular.

Nat­ur­ally, MPs from both sides of the House have been froth­ing at the mouth:  how dare Plod embar­rass an MP by arrest­ing him without warn­ing and by con­duct­ing co-ordin­ated searches of his homes and offices in both Kent and Lon­don?  News­pa­pers, par­tic­u­larly on the right of the polit­ic­al spec­trum, have been full of head­lines say­ing that this is proof that we are liv­ing in a police state.

While I have some sym­pathy for the belea­guered Mr Green, hav­ing also been hauled off by the Met Spe­cial Branch and quizzed for hours for dis­cuss­ing sens­it­ive inform­a­tion that was very much in the pub­lic interest, as well as see­ing my home ripped apart in a co-ordin­ated counter-ter­ror­ism style raid and seen friends arres­ted in co-ordin­ated dawn raids, I am still aghast at the hypo­crisy of both the politi­cians’ and medi­a’s reaction.

Many of us are already all to pain­fully aware that we live in a de facto police state.  Under the notori­ous Sec­tion 44 of the 2000 Ter­ror­ism Act, we can all be stopped and searched for no reas­on — and can even be arres­ted purely so that a bobby on the beat can ascer­tain our iden­tity.  Notices to this effect are now help­fully pinned up out­side most tube sta­tions in Lon­don.  Thou­sands of people are sub­ject to this across the UK every year on the streets of Britain.

But oth­er points rather leap to my atten­tion from the cov­er­age of this case.  If MPs don’t like the heavy-handed use and abuse of police powers, why did they pass these laws in the first place?  Did they not think through the implic­a­tions?  Or do they think that, as MPs, they are some­how above the laws of this land?

Plus, seni­or MPs are arguing that the use of leaks from dis­gruntled civil ser­vants is a time-hon­oured way for HM Oppos­i­tion in Par­lia­ment to hold the gov­ern­ment to account.  Well, that might be good for the MPs’ par­lia­ment­ary careers, but what of the hap­less and fre­quently brave souls with­in the Civil Ser­vice who face 2 years in pris­on for such leaks if they are con­victed of a breach of the 1989 Offi­cial Secrets Act?  And, of course, there is no leg­al defense under the OSA of hav­ing acted “in the pub­lic interest” — the very argu­ment that MPs are using to jus­ti­fy Green’s expos­ure of Home Office cov­er-ups and incompetence. 

As far as I can see, there have been no com­ments from either journ­al­ists or MPs about the fate of the source.    The most I could find was the fol­low­ing in the Daily Tele­graph:

An alleged “whis­tleblower”, thought to be a male Home Office offi­cial was arres­ted 10 days ago.”

Either that means that journ­al­ists and MPs could­n’t give a toss about the fate of this per­son — after all, an MP’s career is far more import­ant — or that any report­ing of the arrest of the whis­tleblower has been injunc­ted in the media to the nth degree.  This would be even more troub­ling, as someone can just be “dis­ap­peared” into a Kafka-esque leg­al nightmare. 


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.


UK Police Chief Misleads MPs

An inter­est­ing art­icle appeared in The Sunday Times today, stat­ing that Bri­tain’s top police­man, the Com­mis­sion­er of the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Sir Ian Blair, had “unwit­tingly” misled the par­lia­ment­ary Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee about the need to increase the peri­od of deten­tion without charge for ter­ror­ist sus­pects in the UK from 28 to 42 days. Blair claimed that 12 major ter­ror­ist oper­a­tions had been foiled in Bri­tain since 2005. In fact, the art­icle reports that only 6 plots have been stopped. Blair has had to issue a grov­el­ling apo­logy via the Press Asso­ci­ation for this, umm, gaffe.

But the art­icle neg­lects to tell us how and why this new inform­a­tion came to light. So allow me to speculate.

The Met, along with its shad­owy cohorts in MI5, is entrus­ted with pro­tect­ing Bri­tain from ter­ror­ist threats. Since 9/11 and the all-per­vas­ive war on ter­ror, Bri­tain’s secur­ity forces have been gran­ted sweep­ing new powers, resources and a huge increase in staff­ing levels to do this job. To ensure this is jus­ti­fied, they are con­tinu­ally telling us of the huge threat we face from ter­ror­ism and how suc­cess­ful they are in pro­tect­ing us. It is in their interests to talk this up.

Mean­while, over on the south bank of the river, MI6 con­tin­ues to suf­fer from the loss of prestige brought about by its mis­takes and lack of good intel­li­gence in the run-up to the Iraq inva­sion. There is no love lost between these three agen­cies, as they com­pete for power and resources. So, to use a good civil ser­vice phrase, I can­not rule out the pos­sib­il­ity that someone in MI6 leaked this inform­a­tion to have a pop at the Met and MI5.

How­ever, there is a more ser­i­ous aspect to this incid­ent. But for this inform­a­tion emer­ging, MPs and pub­lic alike would have had no way of know­ing that the per­ceived threat from ter­ror­ism had been grossly inflated in order for the police to gain yet more powers. We would have had to take Sir Ian’s word.

Well, we’ve been here before many, many times, most notori­ously when the intel­li­gence agen­cies would have us believe that Sad­dam had WMD that could attack Brit­ish interests with 45 minutes. This, of course, led to the Iraq war and the deaths of hun­dreds of thou­sands of inno­cent men, women and children.

So how can we ensure we are told the truth by the spies? Well, great­er account­ab­il­ity and effect­ive par­lia­ment­ary over­sight would be a step in the right dir­ec­tion. But we don’t just need the cor­rect mech­an­isms in place in par­lia­ment. We also need MPs with the know­ledge, intel­li­gence and integ­rity to ask the dif­fi­cult ques­tions when faced with bogus assertions.