Spy Chiefs attack UK Police State

DearloveSir 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”.

The Real Reason for the Police State?

DroneI haven’t writ­ten here for a while, des­pite the embar­ras de richesses that has been presen­ted to us in the news recently: Dame Stella say­ing that the UK is becom­ing a police state;  drones will patrol the streets of Bri­tain, watch­ing our every move; data­bases are being built, con­tain­ing all our elec­tron­ic com­mu­nic­a­tions; ditto all our travel move­ments. What can a lone blog­ger use­fully add to this?  Only so much hot air — the facts speak for them­selves.

Plus, I’ve been a bit caught up over the last couple of months with Oper­a­tion Escape Pod. Not all of us are sit­ting around wait­ing for the pris­on gates to clang shut on the UK. I’m outta here!

But I can­’t res­ist an inter­est­ing art­icle in The Spec­tat­or magazine this week. And that’s a sen­tence I nev­er thought I would write in my life.

Tim Ship­man, quot­ing a pleth­ora of anonym­ous intel­li­gence sources and former spooks, asserts that Bri­tain’s for­eign policy is being skewed by the need to pla­cate our intel­li­gence allies, and that the CIA is roam­ing free in the wilds of York­shire.

His sources tell him that the UK is a “swamp” of Islam­ic extrem­ism, and that the domest­ic spies are ter­ri­fied that there will be a new ter­ror­ist atro­city, prob­ably against US interests but it could be any­where, car­ried out by our very own home-grown ter­ror­ists. Accord­ing to Ship­man, this ter­rible pro­spect had all the spooks busily down­ing trebles in the bars around Vaux­hall Cross in the wake of the Mum­bai bomb­ings.

Apart from the sug­ges­tion that the spies’ drink­ing cul­ture appears to be as robust as ever, I find this inter­est­ing because well-sourced spook spin is more likely to appear in the august pages of The Speccie than in, say, Red Pep­per. But if this is an accur­ate reflec­tion of the think­ing of our politi­cians and intel­li­gence com­munity, then this is an extremely wor­ry­ing devel­op­ment. It goes a long way to explain­ing why the UK has become the most policed state in the West­ern world.

Yes, in the 1990s the UK prac­tised a strategy of appease­ment towards Islam­ic extrem­ists. MI5’s view was always that it was bet­ter to give rad­ic­als a safe haven in the UK, which they would then be loathe to attack dir­ectly, and where a close eye could be kept on them.

This, of course, was derailed by Blair’s Mes­si­an­ic mis­sion in the Middle East. By uni­lat­er­ally sup­port­ing Bush’s adven­tur­ism in Afgh­anistan and Iraq, in the teeth of stark warn­ings about the attend­ant risks from the head of MI5, Bri­tain has become “the enemy” in the eyes of rad­ic­al Islam. The gloves are off, and we are all at great­er risk because of our former PM’s hubris.

But now we appar­ently have free-range CIA officers infilt­rat­ing the Muslim com­munit­ies of the UK.  No doubt Mossad is also again secretly  tol­er­ated, des­pite the fact that they had been banned for years from oper­at­ing in the UK because they were too unpre­dict­able (a civil ser­vice euphem­ism for viol­ent).

And I am will­ing to bet that this inter­na­tion­al per­cep­tion that UK spooks will be caught off-guard by an appar­ently Brit­ish-ori­gin­ated ter­ror­ist attack is the reas­on for the slew of new total­it­ari­an laws that are mak­ing us all sus­pects. The drones, the datamin­ing and the dra­coni­an stop-and-search laws are designed to reas­sure our invalu­able allies in the CIA, Mossad, ISI and the FSB.  They will not be put in place to “pro­tect” us.

Poor Bloody Infantry

There is an ongo­ing cam­paign to save Bletch­ley Park for the nation, in the teeth of gov­ern­ment oppos­i­tion. As his­tor­ic Brit­ish monu­ments go, the ques­tion of wheth­er to pre­serve it for pos­ter­ity should be a no-brain­er. Bletch­ley is not only where Hitler­’s Enigma code machine was decryp­ted, along with many oth­er sys­tems, which argu­ably gave the Allies the intel­li­gence advant­age that led to vic­tory in World War 2, it is also where the first digit­al elec­tron­ic com­puters, code­named Colos­sus, were oper­ated. Two land­mark events of the 20th cen­tury.

Recently The Times repor­ted on this cam­paign. The art­icle also the dwells at some length on how long Bletch­ley’s secrets were kept by the 10,000 people who worked there dur­ing the war. Although this inform­a­tion was declas­si­fied after 30 years, the habit of secrecy was so deeply ingrained that many former employ­ees nev­er breathed a word. The art­icle laments the passing of this habit of dis­cre­tion from Brit­ish life, stat­ing that politi­cians and seni­or intel­li­gence officers now appear to view the pos­ses­sion of insider know­ledge as a good pen­sion fund when they come to write their mem­oirs.

Over the last dec­ade we have see a myri­ad of books emer­ging for the upper ech­el­ons of gov­ern­ment and intel­li­gence in the UK: Alastair Camp­bell, Robin Cook, Wash­ing­ton Ambas­sad­or Sir Chris­toph­er Mey­er, ex-MI5 chief Dame Stella Rim­ing­ton. Even Tony Blair has appar­ently signed a sev­en fig­ure deal for his mem­oirs.

All these books have a num­ber of char­ac­ter­ist­ics in com­mon: they are lengthy, but say little of rel­ev­ance about the burn­ing issues of the day; they appear to have been writ­ten for profit and not in the pub­lic interest; and not one of these writers has ever even been arres­ted under the Offi­cial Secrets Act, even when there is clear prima facie evid­ence of a breach.

Yet these dili­gent authors are the very people who are the first to use the OSA to stifle legit­im­ate dis­clos­ure of crime, cor­rup­tion and incom­pet­ence in the highest levels of gov­ern­ment and intel­li­gence by real whis­tleblowers, who risk their careers and their free­dom. The hypo­crisy is breath­tak­ing.

But was the old-fash­ioned, blanket dis­cre­tion, vaunted by The Times, really such a good thing? The code of “loose talk costs lives” may have made sense dur­ing the Second World War, when this nation was fight­ing for its life. The work at Bletch­ley was mani­festly a suc­cess, obvi­at­ing any need to blow the whistle. But who can tell how these pat­ri­ot­ic men and women would have reacted had they wit­nessed crimes or incom­pet­ence that dam­aged our nation’s secur­ity, led to the deaths of our sol­diers, or even pos­sible defeat?

Also, was the 30-year non-dis­clos­ure rule around the work of Bletch­ley really neces­sary? After all, the war had been won, so how could dis­clos­ure bene­fit the enemy? This unthink­ing applic­a­tion of the stand­ard rules cost the UK dearly. In fact, it would be accur­ate to say that it severely dam­aged the UK’s eco­nom­ic well­being – some­thing the OSA is sup­posed to pro­tect.

In 1943 the Brit­ish were the world lead­ers in digit­al elec­tron­ic com­put­ing. The dra­coni­an Offi­cial Secrets Act pre­cluded the devel­op­ment and com­mer­cial use of this know­ledge in Bri­tain after the war. In fact, mind­bog­glingly, the Colos­sus com­puters were dis­mantled and the research des­troyed.

There were no sim­il­ar pro­vi­sions affect­ing the Amer­ic­an cryp­to­graph­ers who had been sta­tioned at Bletch­ley. Con­sequently, after the war they enthu­si­ast­ic­ally applied Brit­ish research and tech­no­logy to devel­op the US com­puter research pro­gramme and even­tu­ally the mar­ket, pav­ing the way to the suc­cess of Sil­ic­on Val­ley and the dom­in­a­tion of the world’s IT mar­kets for dec­ades. What price the famed Brit­ish stiff upper lip and dis­cre­tion then?

Of course, there need to be leg­al pro­vi­sions to pro­tect real secrets that could affect Bri­tain’s nation­al secur­ity. How­ever, this should be pro­por­tion­ate and bal­anced, and should not pre­vent the devel­op­ment of new research and tech­no­lo­gies, the expos­ure in the pub­lic interest of crime, and cer­tainly not the fact our coun­try was taken into war on the basis of lies.

Real­ist­ic­ally, how­ever, in the age of the inter­net such leg­al pro­vi­sions are increas­ingly mean­ing­less. Des­pite this, more and more coun­tries appear to be adopt­ing Bri­tain’s mod­el of anti­quated and dra­coni­an secrecy legis­la­tion.

We live in a coun­try that crim­in­al­ises any dis­clos­ure of sens­it­ive inform­a­tion – unless it comes in the form of mem­oirs from seni­or politi­cians, White­hall offi­cials or spooks of course. As always, there is one rule for the gen­er­als and one for the poor bloody infantry.

For the good of our coun­try, we need to rethink this legis­la­tion.