Spies need more oversight, not new powers

Pub­lished on www​.polit​ics​.co​.uk, and Huff­ing­ton Post UK.

Fol­low­ing the awful murder of Drum­mer Lee Rigby in Wool­wich last week, the polit­ic­al securo­crats who claim to rep­res­ent the interests of the Brit­ish intel­li­gence ser­vices have swung into action, demand­ing yet fur­ther sur­veil­lance powers for MI5 and MI6 “in order to pre­vent future Wool­wich-style attacks”.

As I’ve writ­ten before, it was heart­en­ing that the UK Prime Min­is­ter said in the after­math of the attack that there would be no knee-jerk secur­ity reac­tion. How­ever, that has not deterred cer­tain intel­li­gence sock-pup­pets from polit­ic­al oppor­tunism — they stridently call for the resur­rec­tion of the draft Com­mu­nic­a­tions Data Bill that was earli­er this year kicked into the long grass. If the hawks are suc­cess­ful, the new law would have implic­a­tions not only for our freedoms at home, but also for our policy and stand­ing abroad.

Recently the civil liber­ties camp acquired a sur­pris­ing ally in this debate, with MI5 unex­pec­tedly enter­ing the fray.  And rightly so. There is abso­lutely no need for this new legis­la­tion, the requis­ite powers are already in place. Seni­or secur­ity sources have argued that those cit­ing the Wool­wich attack to pro­mote the snoop­ers’ charter are using a “cheap argu­ment”.

As I said in this recent BBC radio inter­view, all the neces­sary laws are already in place for MI5 either to pass­ively mon­it­or or aggress­ively invest­ig­ate per­sons of interest under the ori­gin­al terms of IOCA (1985) and updated in the Reg­u­la­tion of Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Act (RIPA 2000).

There now appears to be little doubt that the two Wool­wich sus­pects were well and truly on the MI5 radar. It has been repor­ted that they had been tar­gets for at least 8 years and that Michael Ade­bolajo had been approached to work as an agent by MI5 as recently as 6 months ago.

One of his friends, Abu Nusay­bah, recor­ded an inter­view for BBC’s News­night pro­gramme last week, only to be arres­ted by counter-ter­ror­ism police imme­di­ately after­wards. He stated that Ade­bolajo had been tor­tured and threatened with rape after his arrest in Kenya en route to Somalia, and that this treat­ment may have flipped him into more viol­ent action. Indeed, the tale gets ever mur­ki­er, with reports yes­ter­day stat­ing that Ade­bolajo was snatched by the SAS in Kenya on the orders of MI5.

Oth­er inform­a­tion has since been released by the organ­isa­tion Cage­Pris­on­ers indic­at­ing that Adebolajo’s fam­ily and friends had also been har­rassed to pres­sur­ize him into report­ing to MI5.

All of which obvi­ates the early claims that Ade­bolajo was either a “lone wolf” or a low-pri­or­ity tar­get. It cer­tainly indic­ates to me that MI5 will have at the very least been mon­it­or­ing Adebolajo’s com­mu­nic­a­tions data, espe­cially if they were try­ing to recruit him as a source. If that indeed turns out to have been the case, then without doubt MI5 will also have been inter­cept­ing the con­tent of his com­mu­nic­a­tions, to under­stand his think­ing and assess his access. Any­thing less would have been slip­shod — a derel­ic­tion of duty — and all this could and should have been done under the exist­ing terms of RIPA.

So what are the chances of some real over­sight or answers?

If we’re talk­ing about an inde­pend­ent inquiry, the chances are slim: the Inquir­ies Act (2005) passed little noticed into law, but it means that the gov­ern­ment and the depart­ment under invest­ig­a­tion can pretty much determ­ine the scope and terms of the inquiry to which they are sub­ject.

How­ever, might we nail the flag of hope to the mast of the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee of Par­lia­ment (ISC) — the com­mit­tee tasked with over­see­ing the work of the UK intel­li­gence agen­cies? The new DG of MI5, Andrew Park­er, has already sub­mit­ted a writ­ten report about Wool­wich and will be giv­ing evid­ence to the ISC in per­son next week about wheth­er MI5 missed some vital intel­li­gence or dropped the ball.

Th ISC of Par­lia­ment was estab­lished as part of the Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act (1994) — the law that finally brought MI6 and GCHQ under the umbrella of notion­al demo­crat­ic over­sight. MI5 had already come into the leg­al fold with the Secur­ity Ser­vice Act (1989).

As I have writ­ten before, ini­tially the ISC was a demo­crat­ic fig-leaf — its mem­bers were appoin­ted by the PM not Par­lia­ment, it repor­ted dir­ectly to the PM, and its remit only covered the policy, fin­ance and admin­is­tra­tion of the UK’s intel­li­gence agen­cies.

Until this year the ISC could not invest­ig­ate oper­a­tion­al mat­ters, nor could it demand to see doc­u­ments or ques­tion top spooks under oath. Indeed, it has been well repor­ted that seni­or spies and police have long evaded mean­ing­ful scru­tiny by being “eco­nom­ic­al with the truth”.

Former MI5 DG Sir Steph­en Lander in 2001 said “I blanche at some of the things I declined to tell the com­mit­tee early on”; a more recent DG, Sir Jonath­an Evans, had to admit in 2008 that MI5 had lied about its involve­ment in tor­ture; and Lord Blair, former Com­mis­sion­er of the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police, had to apo­lo­gise in 2008 for mis­lead­ing the ISC about the num­ber of thwarted ter­ror­ist attacks on his watch.

How­ever the cur­rent Chair of the ISC, Sir Mal­com Rif­kind, has pur­sued a more mus­cu­lar over­sight role. And it seems he has at least won some battles. The one good ele­ment to have come out of the con­ten­tious Justice and Secur­ity Act (2013) appears to be that the ISC has more dir­ect account­ab­il­ity to Par­lia­ment, rather than just to the PM (the dev­il is expressed in the detail: the ISC is now “of” Par­lia­ment, rather than “in” Par­lia­ment…).

Some­what more per­tin­ently, the ISC can now invest­ig­ate oper­a­tion­al mat­ters, demand papers and wit­nesses, and it appears they now have a spe­cial invest­ig­at­or who can go and rum­mage around the MI5 Registry for inform­a­tion.

It remains to be seen how effect­ive the ISC will real­ist­ic­ally be in hold­ing the intel­li­gence agen­cies to account, even with these new powers. How­ever, Sir Mal­colm Rif­kind has good reas­on to know how slip­pery the spies can be — after all, he was the For­eign Sec­ret­ary in 1995/6, the years when MI6 was fund­ing Al Qaeda asso­ci­ates to assas­sin­ate Col­on­el Gad­dafi of Libya.  The attack went wrong, inno­cent people were killed and, cru­cially, it was illeg­al under UK law, as MI6 had not reques­ted the pri­or writ­ten per­mis­sion for such a plot from the For­eign Sec­ret­ary, as required under Sec­tion 7(1) of the afore­men­tioned ISA (1994). Rif­kind has always claimed that he was not told about the plot by MI6.

So, in the interests of justice let us hope that the Rif­kind and the oth­er mem­bers of the ISC fully exer­cise their powers and that MI5’s new DG, Andrew Park­er is some­what more frank about the work of his agency than his pre­de­cessors have been. It is only through great­er hon­esty and account­ab­il­ity that our intel­li­gence agen­cies can learn from the mis­takes of the past and bet­ter pro­tect our coun­try in the future.

BBC Radio interview about the “snoopers’ charter”

Yes­ter­day I gave an inter­view to BBC Radio Ulster about the secur­ity fall-out of the Wool­wich murder and the cyn­ic­al polit­ic­al oppor­tunism of those call­ing, inev­it­ably, for great­er powers for the spies and a rein­tro­duc­tion of the pro­posed Com­munuic­a­tions Data Bill, dubbed the “snoop­ers’ charter”.

Here is the link.

Cockle Rustlers under Surveillance

Four times in the past three years, powers designed to catch ter­ror­ists have been deployed against poten­tial cockle rust­lers on the sands out­side Poole Har­bour in Dor­set. I kid you not. The Inde­pend­ent news­pa­per yes­ter­day repor­ted that Poole Bor­ough Coun­cil had used the sweep­ing sur­veil­lance of the Reg­u­la­tion of Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Act (2000), oth­er­wise known as RIPA, to police the cockle fish­er­men of Dor­set.

RIPA was inten­ded (the gov­ern­ment told us in 2000) merely to update for the inter­net age the old Inter­cep­tion of Com­mu­nic­a­tions Act (1985) that for the first time had reg­u­lated the intrus­ive sur­veil­lance car­ried out by spooks and police. In fact, the Grim RIPA massively expan­ded state intru­sion into our per­son­al lives, so that nine gov­ern­ment organ­iz­a­tions, includ­ing the secur­ity ser­vices and police, and 792 pub­lic author­it­ies (of which 474 are loc­al coun­cils) now have the powers to snoop on our private com­mu­nic­a­tions, and then some.

In fact, doc­u­ments dis­closed under the Free­dom of Inform­a­tion Act sug­gest that Poole Bor­ough Coun­cil may have the dubi­ous dis­tinc­tion of being the nosi­est in the UK, using RIPA not only to police its waters, but also to check on the res­id­en­tial status of loc­als, dam­age caused to traffic bar­ri­ers or oth­er minor infrac­tions. Hardly the stuff of James Bond.

Inad­vert­ently, Poole Coun­cil has provided a clas­sic case of reduc­tio ad absurdum, but this can be use­ful in high­light­ing more ser­i­ous flaws.

In the last dec­ade we have seen a slew of laws passed by our elec­ted rep­res­ent­at­ives in par­lia­ment that are poten­tially dan­ger­ous to our demo­cracy and way of life. All these laws have been whipped through par­lia­ment, and the media has ten­ded not to give them much con­sid­er­a­tion.

One such law that springs to mind is the Civil Con­tin­gen­cies Act (2004). This was passed with barely a mur­mur and, in the wake of the foot and mouth crisis, was deemed to be A Good Thing. How­ever, the dev­il is always in the detail. This law allows any seni­or gov­ern­ment min­is­ter, at the stroke of a pen, to declare a 30 day state of emer­gency. Under these terms, the author­it­ies can pre­vent our free asso­ci­ation at polit­ic­al meet­ings or demon­stra­tions, they can quar­ant­ine us, or pre­vent us mov­ing freely around our coun­try. They can even seize our homes, demol­ish them, and not have to pay a penny in com­pens­a­tion, as this will have been done to pro­tect “nation­al secur­ity”.

But the real stinker was the draft of the Legis­lat­ive and Reg­u­lat­ory Reform Act (2006). If Blair had suc­ceeded in passing this law, it would have spelled the end of 700 years of par­lia­ment­ary demo­cracy in Bri­tain. Had the ori­gin­al draft been approved, any seni­or gov­ern­ment min­is­ter could have abol­ished any law pre­vi­ously passed by our Houses of Par­lia­ment.

Not for noth­ing was this nick­named the “Abol­i­tion of Par­lia­ment Bill” (well, that and the fact that its form­al title is a tongue-twister – try say­ing it out loud!). Fol­low­ing a cit­izens’ cam­paign, the Bill was watered down as it passed through the Houses of Par­lia­ment. How­ever, even though lim­ited safe­guards have been intro­duced, min­is­ters are still in a pos­i­tion to tinker with any Brit­ish laws except the Human Rights Act. So, the tend­ency for author­it­ari­an gov­ern­ment may have been reined in this time, but we need to remain vigil­ant.

Many people are aware and are also appre­hens­ive of how these laws could be mis­used against the cit­izens of the UK if a more ruth­less and dra­coni­an gov­ern­ment were in power. Many com­ment­at­ors say we are sleep-walk­ing towards a police state. The tragedy is that we are pretty much there – most of the neces­sary laws are in place. It is time for us all to re-engage in the demo­crat­ic pro­cess and halt this rush towards a com­pletely unac­count­able gov­ern­ment.