Sir Richard Dearlove, ex-head of MI6 and current Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, has been much in the news recently after gracing the Hay on Wye book festival, where he gave a speech. In this, he is reported to have spoken out, in strong terms, against the endemic and all-pervasive surveillance society developing in the UK.
Ex-spy chiefs in the UK have a charming habit of using all these surveillance measures to the nth degree while in the shadows, and then having a Damascene conversion into civil liberties campaigners once they retire. Eliza Manningham-Buller, the ex-head of MI5, used her maiden speech in the House of Lords to argue against the extension of the time limit the police could hold a terrorist suspect without charge, and even Stella Rimington (also ex-MI5) has recently thrown her hat in the ring. They nick all my best lines these days.
Wouldn’t it be great if one of them, one day, could argue in favour of human rights, proportionality and the adherence to the law while they were still in a position to influence affairs?
Dearlove himself could have changed the course of world history if he had found the courage to speak out earlier about the fact that the intelligence case for the Iraq war was being fixed around pre-determined policy. As it is, we only know that he objected to this because of the notorious, leaked Downing Street Memo.
The Guardian newspaper reported that Dearlove even touched on the reality of obtaining ministerial permission before breaking the law. Which, of course, is the ultimate point of the 1994 Intelligence Services Act, and does indeed enshrine the fabled “licence to kill”. It states that MI6 officers can break the law abroad with impunity from prosecution if, and only if, they obtain prior written permission from their political master — in this case the Foreign Secretary.
However, according to The Guardian, he seems to have misunderstood the spirit of the law, if not the letter:
He said that the intelligence community was “sometimes asked to act in difficult circumstances. When it does, it asks for legal opinion and ministerial approval … It’s about political cover”.
Momentarily putting aside the not unimportant debate about whether the spies and the government should even be allowed technically to side-step international laws against crimes up to, and including, murder, I am still naively surprised by the shamelessness of this statement: the notion of ministerial oversight was put in place to ensure some kind of democratic oversight and accountability for the work of the spies — not to provide political cover, a fig leaf.
I think he’s rather given the game away here about how the spies really view the role of their “political masters”.