Note: I wrote this in 2004 for the IndividuaL Magazine (published Feb 2005 issue 40) . Since then the position has worsened with ever more restrictions on persona liberty and intrusion into our lives. Robert Henderson
Are security and intelligence organisations such as Special Branch, MI5 and MI6 necessary or desirable? (For convenience’s sake I shall refer to such organisations collectively as the security services ) They are such an embedded part of our society that to question the need for their existence would seem to most people as nonsensical as asking why we have police. But that is no more than the power of habit. Looked at with a cold eye there is good reason to consider such services a political threat to any society which wishes to maintain its freedom and at least a degree of democratic control over the elite, and a positive practical danger to any society because of the frequent unreliability of intelligence, through incompetence, deliberate subversion from within or “black” operations by foreign intelligence organisations.
Secrecy and democracy
The obvious but often ignored truth about security and intelligence work is that it has a quality which is unambiguously incompatible with democracy. That quality is secrecy.
State secrecy eats away at democratic control. Unless an electorate has the right to know what the state is doing in any aspect of its work, unlimited mischief can be perpetrated. Justice can be perverted, crimes commissioned, treason committed, political policies subverted, elections manipulated and the lives of individuals maliciously ruined, all with little chance of discovery and next to no chance of prosecution even where the public does find out about the wrongdoing.
The most enraging document I have ever read is the Hansard report of the Commons debate the day before war was declared in 1914 and Britain entered the most disastrous conflict in its and Europe’s history.
It is clear from Hansard that the grave and novel dangers of entering into a war with modern technology were well understood by many MPs. Worse, the pathetic and repulsive evasions of the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, showed that Parliament and consequently the British people had been kept in the dark over the secret agreement between the British and French Governments concluded around the time of the Anglo-French entente (“Entente Cordiale” 1904), which obligated Britain to go to war if France was attacked. And so off Britain went to the trenches for four long years, ostensibly because of an 1839 treaty Britain had signed guaranteeing Belgium’s sovereignty, but in reality because the British elite of the time had committed itself to the French elite without any Parliamentary oversight or agreement.
Democracy and openness of government go hand in hand. Free expression and a free media are an integral part of democracy, but they can formally exist and yet be restricted to the point where democratic control is effectively nil in some areas of politics because secrecy is successfully practised by government, as it is in Britain. The security services are the prime example of such a lack of control.
Who shall guard the guards?
This is a question about elites which never becomes hackneyed because of its perpetual and pressing importance. But there is a prior question in a country with security services, namely, who are the guards? Are they the politicians with the ostensible power or are they the security services? Or are politicians and security services locked in a ghastly mutually compromising and compromised embrace? The ability of security forces to become a law unto themselves is epitomised by the KGB, which ended up as a state within a state.
The British government adopts the general line of “we never make statements on matters effecting national security”. Ask a question of a minister with security implications and he will trot out the “we never comment” on security matters or “we neither confirm nor deny whether X has or has not happened”.
In effect, they are asking for a blank cheque from not only the general public but the vast majority of MPs. This institutionalised secrecy undermines any attempt by politicians outside the government (and probably most within it) to control the security services. MI5 and MI6 are in theory overseen by a Commons Select Committee (the Intelligence and Security Committee), but in reality they are no more than a fig leaf of political oversight. Their impotence is epitomised by their annual report, much of which is not published for, yes you’ve guessed it, security reasons.
The opportunities for blackmail
Rumour has it that the first person a newly installed PM meets is the head of MI5 who provides him with a security file on each candidate for a position in the Government. Whether this is the exact truth or not it must be close to it, because government ministers have to have security vetting and there is simply not time to conduct a thorough investigation of would-be ministers in a new Government after an election because a government must be formed immediately. That implies that many, possibly all, MPs have an MI5 file kept on them.
If MI5 holds such files, the opportunities for controlling MPs through blackmail are unlimited. The Prime Minister of the day can discipline any MP with an awkward past – and how many people do not have the odd skeleton in the cupboard? – or smear both his own MPs and those of other parties.
Even more frightening for democrats is the potential control which security services can exert over politicians. If the security services hold data on politicians they can potentially blackmail any politician. What goes for politicians goes in principle for any person. Any person may be blackmailed, judges, policemen, mediafolk.
The people security services monitor is often dubious in the extreme. Several years ago, a LibDem MP, Norman Baker received information which gave him reason to believe that MI5 had opened a file on him simply because of his involvement with a road protest group. He is still fighting to get MI5 to tell him what information they hold on him.
The combination of state gathering of information and the use of the power of the state to both abuse individuals by threatening its public revelation and prevent those responsible for the abuse ever being brought to account in a court of law should frighten anyone.
The situation is worsening because of the burgeoning power of technology and the ever more authoritarian powers which Parliament is granting to the security services and the police generally.
Technology allows ever greater opportunity to gather, store and collate data, while laws such as the various terrorism Acts and the diminution of legal safeguards such as the breach of the right to silence and the proposed reduction in the scope of jury trials, will allow the state to do what they will with their citizens. Most worrying is the Civil Contingencies Bill, which is with justice compared to Hitler’s Enabling Act because it allows the government to do literally anything without debate, Parliamentary approval or regard to existing law by simply declaring an emergency, the circumstances of which are so loosely defined as to give an unscrupulous government carte blanche in deciding when and what an emergency is for the purposes of this law.
The international dimension
Just as the security services have the opportunity to manipulate events in their own country for their own purposes, they potentially can do so abroad, especially if they are working in unison with a foreign security organisation. It is not implausible to imagine, say, MI6 and the CIA cooperating to advance the interests of each of their organisations or of individuals within the organisations, without any regard to the wishes of politicians or the interests of their respective countries.
The peculiar legal position of the security services
What can the British security and intelligence services legally do which is denied those outside the services? They are allowed to formally break the law without risk of prosecution provided they have official permission to do so. They may burgle your house. They may bug your phone. They may open your post. They may stalk you. They may keep data on you which they can make available to politicians and government agencies, whilst refusing to admit they hold such information if an individual makes a request under the Data Protection Act and the Freedom of Information Act.
In theory they can only do these things if proper official authorisation is given. But in the case of MI5 and MI6 there is no meaningful oversight of what they do.
A member of the security services is caught in a criminal act? The prosecution would not be in the public interest. Evidence held by the security services is wanted as evidence in a court case? It cannot be provided because it would compromise security. A security service member is called as a witness? Sorry, they either cannot appear or cannot be identified. You wish to discover whether data is held on you by the security service? MI5 and MI6 will claim the security exemption in the Data Protection Act and will not even tell you whether data is held. In short, they are a law unto themselves.
The public evidence is that if security agents do what the powers-that-be want, generally they can behave as they want without fear of exposure or prosecution because the decision as to whether to prosecute rests with the state. We know such prosecutions are effectively unknown from the simple fact of the absence of prosecutions where a person is charged with a crime committed whilst working for the state.
People who have done security work are prosecuted of course, but that is when they have broken the law on their own initiative and can be plausibly denied by the State.
The effectiveness of Intelligence
The obvious practical problems with intelligence work are who and what do you believe? Is there any way of being certain that an agent is not a double agent by design or necessity, having been caught and “turned”? And what is to stop a “turned” agent being “turned” again? We enter a world of mirrors in which all is reflected and nothing can be taken at its face value. That being so, what is the point of espionage?
The danger of infiltration by agents of the enemy is all too real. The experience of both British and US security services has been pretty dismal, stretching from the likes of Kim Philby in Britain to Aldrich Ames in the US.
If the infiltrators are in a senior position they have immense opportunity to do harm, in betraying agents, in sabotaging actions and in promoting disinformation for their true masters. Soviet spies such as the traitors Philby, Burgess and Maclean were not foot soldiers but senior operatives within British Intelligence.
How much of security service time is wasted on surveillance of the security service’s own personnel? One would hope it would be considerable because who can trust whom? Our hope is almost certainly misplaced because we know of the many examples of senior figures in the British security services going undetected as spies for many years. More sinister, the existence of such people may be merely indicative of such widespread infiltration of British security that they have been (and perhaps still are) effectively controlled by the enemy.
The politicisation of intelligence
All British Governments, including Blair’s, swear blind that political security judgements are made on the objective assessments of intelligence made by the various security services. To anyone familiar with the workings of government departments this will seem more than a little improbable. Here are the words of Peter Gardner, a one time intelligence analyst working for the British government, in the Daily Telegraph London on 30 6 2003
“ SIR – The Government is seeking to defend itself against the charge of exaggerating the that posed by Saddam Hussein by presenting another myth as fact: that the Joint Intelligence Committee is the independent authority on intelligence. As anyone who has worked with that august body will know, this is far from the truth. It does not, as Tony Blair and Jack Straw want the public to believe, deal with raw intelligence. Neither does it assess raw intelligence. This is the job of the analyst. Its primary role is to advise the Government on the implications of intelligence assessments and it is therefore a highly political body.
When I was writing assessments for the JIC it was not uncommon for pressure to be applied to me and other analysts to adjust our assessments to ensure they would be “better received.” By its very nature, especially when hard evidence is scarce, as seems to be the case with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, raw intelligence provides scope for flexibility in the assessment made of it. There is even wider scope for the implications of weak assessments be influenced by presentation alone.
Such pressure is never in writing and never delivered directly. A representative of the Foreign Office, Downing Street or some other department calls and offers advice. With no audit trail, governments hope that they will not be caught out should the independence of JIC reports ever be questioned.
Any genuine inquiry into the use or abuse of intelligence should therefore address not only members of the JIC but also the analysts reporting to it. Do we have to rely on a reporter from the BBC to do that tor us?”
As an ex-civil servant I can say that government generally works in this fashion when dealing with contentious matters, politicians and civil servants “writing for the record”, that is, putting what they want the official record to show. This is generally less than the full truth and not infrequently downright lies.
There has also developed in recent years a type of public behaviour which strongly suggests the security services are less than disinterested and apolitical agencies. No longer are Special Branch and MI5 locked in the shadows. They have public spokesmen, websites and information lines. This new found visibility has given politicians another opportunity to use security personnel to bolster their position. Hence, we find the head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, issuing a general and unsubstantiated warning (DT 19 June 2003) that it was only a matter of time before terrorists obtain and use a “dirty bomb” to wreak mass devastation. This warning came when the Blair Government was in increasing trouble over the treatment of intelligence before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. One would not have to be much of a cynic to think this was simply the head of MI5 acting on the orders of government as a smokescreen for the Government.
The events surrounding the Iraq invasion – especially the revelations of the Hutton Inquiry – should have killed once and for all any notion that intelligence is used honestly by politicians. Blair did not merely misrepresent or inflate data in the infamous “dossier”, he told a straightforward untruth for political purposes about Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction being a direct, certain and immediate threat to British citizens. We know this because the Hutton Inquiry revealed that the actual intelligence was cautious, filled with caveats, inconclusive and in the case of the “45 minutes” claim to launch WMD loaded missiles, referred only to battlefield capability not long distance delivery systems.
The behaviour of the then head of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) John Scarlett (a career intelligence officer) was also very revealing. Scarlett hid intelligence service doubts about Blair’s use of the data they were providing from Blair and the rest of the Cabinet. This is the classic behaviour of courtier towards the king, doing his duty by preventing the king from knowing what would be damaging for him to know and guaranteeing, in this case, Blair’s “deniabilty” should he be challenged over such intelligence dissent. Blair’s press officer, Alastair Campbell, provided further evidence of the incestuous relationship between Scarlett and 10 Downing Street by publicly describing Scarlett as “a mate”.
The success or failure of the security services is untestable
It is all very well saying that intelligence is testable against future events. It most certainly is. The trouble is that in all the really important cases one cannot wait for future events to show the accuracy or otherwise of the intelligence. With something such as the breaking of the codes for U Boat movements, the test of future events is of use because, although false information may be given, the consequence of acting upon it was not and could not be national catastrophe. The worse that might happen was the loss of a convoy or two, which although terrible for those involved, was a blip in the great scheme of things that is a world war.
Can anyone remember any instance where intelligence or security work has averted a truly national disaster? By that I mean not a terrorist act such as the Omagh bombing but a war or an invasion? If you can, I would be interested to hear from you.
Of course, the security services will argue that the general public does not know about the successes because the war or disaster never happens. This form of argument is insupportable because it is untestable.
What we do know is that there are many instances of intelligence failure or the failure of politicians to act on intelligence. The Falklands War is a classic example of the latter where the intelligence was correct but the politicians ignored it.
The best funded and most technological advanced security forces in the world, those of the USA, failed to predict the fall of the Soviet Union or prevent Pearl Harbour, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait or 911.
If the intelligence can never be certain and politicians will always be tempted to ignore unpleasant facts, it is so untrustworthy as to be useless at best and positively dangerous at worst.
It is also worthwhile pointing out that every now and then the security service is faced with the thing they fear most: information about their activities illicitly reaches the public fold, whether by internal leakage, a dirty trick by another security service, disaffected ex-employees or pure bad luck or carelessness – the amount of classified information thrown onto public waste tips or left on laptop computers or in briefcases which are subsequently lost sometimes seems to be enough to fill a library. As I write this, I have today’s London Evening Standard (7 12 2004) revealing how details of the protection to be given the President of Pakistan during his forthcoming visit were found in a London street. Curiously, nothing dramatic ever seems to result from such breaches of security.
The other chronic problem for security services and politicians today is the sheer volume of data being obtained through electronic surveillance. There comes a point – long since past one imagines – when the volume of data becomes so overwhelming that is cannot be meaningfully studied or processed. That fact alone will mean that the intelligence chaff cannot be readily sorted from the wheat.
What if there were no security services?
The best way to judge the worth and effectiveness of any activity is to ask what would happen if it did not exist. Imagine that MI5 and MI6 did not exist, what then? Our politicians would be forced to take proper responsibility for their actions because they would not be able to say that they were “relying on intelligence reports”. If there were no security services politicians would have to make decisions based on publicly known facts and use their commonsense.
This would concentrate political minds wonderfully and make rash or cowardly behaviour less common because their would be no one else to blame. Imagine, for example, that Blair had not been able to hide behind intelligence reports to justify our participation in the Iraq invasion. Would he have gone ahead if he had to take the full responsibility? I doubt it because he would been reduced to saying either that we must go in simply to support the US or that his conscience told him it was the right thing to do, neither of which would have been politically acceptable. The intelligence reports gave him a fig leaf to cover his political nakedness.
The security services would not be able to feed false information to politicians. The opportunities for state gathering of data which could be used to blackmail people would be greatly reduced.
There are aspects of security work which are necessary. They are the police functions such as anti-terrorist work on the domestic front. These can be transferred to Special Branch over which there is, in theory at least, meaningful democratic supervision because they are part of the police.
A simple way to improve security work – get rid of getting “Mr Big”
The police frequently excuse their failure to arrest people at the first opportunity on the grounds that they were “waiting for the suspect to lead them to the main player”. The security services use a similar line of justification, with a few pieces of additional ornament. The “Mr Big” line is probably the favourite for not arresting or prosecuting spies and even common criminals associated with them, but it has such fellows as “we did not wish to compromise a source/agent/operation” and “a prosecution would have endangered national security/national interests.”
The problem is that Mr Big is very rarely snared and when he is, another Mr Big soon takes his place. The other way of tackling Mr Big is to keep “killing” the footsoldiers by arresting and trying them. Mr Bigs cannot operate without bodies on the ground.
What threat could Britain be under?
The really radical question to ask is what foreign threat is Britain likely to face in the future? As things stand, there would appear to be no prospect of armed invasion provided we retain nuclear weapons.
There could plausibly be a trade embargo, for example if Britain withdrew from the EU, and just conceivably a blockcade, but the way for Britain to guard against such contingencies is to render herself capable of basic self-sufficiency in food, power, raw materials and manufacturing capacity.
If that is the case, what could foreign espionage organisations discover which would be a direct threat to British territory or interests? Apart from military information, the only potentially compromising data would relate to secret agreements between Britain and other nations or scandals involving British politicians which are not unearthed by our media. As secrecy is the bane of democracy any help in revealing them, foreign or otherwise, hostile or not, would be doing Britain a service.
It would be difficult to make an argument for even the protection of most military secrets if Britain restricted her armed forces simply to the task of defending the home territory, a policy adopted by most Western states. The whole point about defensive weapons is that you want the potential enemies to know that you have them.
There is no reason to believe that foreign government espionage could damage British interests, while the British security forces offer politicians a cast iron alibi for errors of judgement in foreign affairs and the justification for maintaining secrecy where openness should be the norm.
Judged by past performance, there is no evidence that security services anywhere have been successful in preventing any major military attack.
By their nature, the security services have an immense potential power for abuse, both through blackmail and the absence of any effective political control of them.
Security services are a threat to democratic politics and to the general freedom of any society. They are a conspiracy against the masses.
By permitting security services, we allow those with power to manipulate us without natural limit. We need to abolish the likes of MI5 and MI6 for our own protection.