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.