Daily Archives: November 4, 2010

Secret services: a conspiracy against the public

 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.

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