Getting it right: the security agencies in modern society

👤 Robin Ramsay  

See note (1)

Robin Ramsay

The topic was suggested to me by Kevin O’Brien [of ICSA]. It wasn’t clear to me if it was simply that I was being played out a very long piece of rope with which to hang myself. At any rate, given such a wide title – and a title to which I cannot possibly actually do justice – and given my complete lack of knowledge about the audience to whom I was delivering the talk, I decided to chuck out a bunch of ideas in the hope of providing something juicy for you to have a go at. Incidentally, I do actually respond briefly to the stated title at the end of the piece.

A preface: in what follows I use the terms security agencies and secret state to stand for the intelligence and security services – it saves time and endless repetition of a mouthful. Or should I say: I use the term security agencies in place of the intelligence, security and surveillance services, MI6, MI5, GCHQ. Or should I say: I use the term security agencies to stand for the intelligence, security, surveillance and disinformation services? Because disinforming the British citizen is certainly a current aim of at last two of those bodies. Or should it be the intelligence, security, surveillance, disinformation and fucking-up-the-lives-of-certain-people-the-state-finds-awkward-or -irritating services? Because that, too, is an aim of at least one of the ‘security agencies’. To that last category I will return.

I am a generalist not a specialist. I could say that my main interest is in the interface between the political and the intelligence worlds; between secret and authoritarian; between open and democratic. But really I’m just interested in the nature of political and historical reality. I’ve read Professor Freedman’s excellent book on the U.S. intelligence estimating process; (2) but I also read books about UFOs. Both are part of political reality as I see it. Indeed both overlap: the CIA is certainly interested in UFOs. A loose alliance of intelligence officers in America, led by a CIA officer named Ron Pandolphi, has spent the last 20 years running disinformation at the American UFO buffs. If you have watched the X Files TV programme you have been watching themes first invented by Pandolphi and his crew.

Which is an oblique way into this: the security agencies, the intelligence agencies, are a part of political reality; and maybe a big part – certainly a bigger part than orthodox historians and political scientists would have us believe.

Denounced by a former IRD head

I’m here because I have been publishing a little magazine called Lobster for 17 years, part of whose content has been information about, and critical commentaries on, the activities of the British and American – mostly British – security agencies. To intelligence professionals, no doubt, the little I have managed to learn and publish is laughable, both in content and quantity. Even so, Lobster has had its moments. It has been denounced in the House of Commons by Ray Whitney, former head of the Information Research Department, IRD, the state’s official, anti-left, psy-war outfit. Oddly enough this was something he omitted to tell the Commons before denouncing me; not that one MP in 50 would know what IRD was had he referred to it.

That I am aware of, I have had two agents of the British secret state – from MI5, I presume – sicced onto me to pick my brains. This happened in 1987/8 when I was deeply embroiled with Colin Wallace and his story about anti-Labour hanky panky in Northern Ireland. I was on the phone to him every day and was talking to lots of journalists who were trying to understand his story. Wallace and I assumed our phones were tapped – though we never had any evidence of this; none of the noises, interference and fragments of recorded conversation played back other people were reporting at that time. Being essentially a one-man band even then – my erstwhile partner Stephen Dorril had abandoned Lobster to write a book – Lobster must have presented a peculiar problem to an organisation like MI5. How do you penetrate a one man band? After you have the phone-taps on and the mail intercept, what else is there to do? In the case of something like CND it’s easy: someone is sent to join and then volunteer to work at head office. Incidentally, the talk of MI5 ‘penetrating’ CND is a joke: any member could work in head office. It was an open organisation, it ran on volunteers and it had no secrets.

So here we were in 1987: MI5 contemplating what to do about Lobster.

What they did was really quite subtle. I was a fairly serious runner than and used to regularly run round the grass perimeter of the University of Hull playing fields. There were three of us running round this field at lunch-times and eventually we got to talking in the changing rooms, and then went for a beer afterwards; and I became friends with one of them, a post-doc researcher, a man called………let’s call him John. Nice guy: on a similar wavelength to me politically; interesting life; good stories; good drinking companion – and, of course, he was really interested in the little magazine I was publishing and what I was working on. At that point nobody in Hull was interested in what I was doing and I was happy to talk to him. I had no secrets.

About 6 months after I met him I got a call from an American journalist I know called Jim Hougan. Hougan had been chatting to a friend, who had a contact in the FBI and somehow this little magazine produced in Hull, England, came up. Don’t worry about Lobster, was the message, Lobster has been penetrated. That seemed absolutely hilarious to Hougan and me. Typical spook bullshit, we thought, claiming to have penetrated an organisation consisting of one man. We had a good laugh down the transatlantic phone line and I forgot about it.

About a month later, as I was cycling through Hull city centre, out of a clear blue sky, without any conscious musings on my part, I thought: ‘It must be John’ – and about six months experience suddenly reorganised itself in my head. Yes, it was my new running, drinking, talking, buddy John. He’d been pretty clever about it but I knew it was him. Through his girlfriend I let him know I had sussed him and I never saw him again.

That, you might think, would be the end of it. Not so. A few weeks went by and another person tried to attach himself to me, this time claiming to be to be a former MI5 agent who would spill the beans. But he was ill, so ill, and the NHS in London was so bad…..This goes on for some weeks and I initially take him seriously and begin badgering doctors in London…. Then one day he says, ‘What’s the NHS like in Hull?’ Maybe he could move to Hull and get treatment….. then he would tell me wonderful tales of MI5…..

At ‘moving to Hull’ I put the phone down on him. He called himself Sammy. He had been an actor and claimed that MI5 and Special Branches used him to penetrate left organisations.

Somewhere in Whitehall there must still be files on that operation – a brilliant example of the way our secret state wastes money. Because there was nothing to find out. I had no secret sources: with my mail opened and my phone tapped they knew as much as there was to know.

Running Soviet themes?

I have been accused of running Soviet disinformation by Herb Rommerstein, a big cheese in the United States Information Service during the Reagan years. In fact in all the years I have been doing this I have never seen a piece of Soviet disinformation. I have seen lots of British and some American disinformation; but even the few examples of Soviet disinformation described by Oleg Gordievsky never came my way. And no-one on the Rommerstein side of things has produced a critique showing me how I had – wittingly or unwittingly – been running Soviet themes through Lobster. Perhaps I have; I would be interested to be shown how and where. More recently I have been accused a couple of times of being a front for MI6 by American conspiracy theory nutters. But that’s about par for the course in these fields.

The examples of Soviet disinformation offered by Gordievsky from the 1980s in his book KGB were laughably incompetent, forgeries which would fool no-one and which had zero distribution as far as I know on this country’s left. And their incompetence brings me to the first point I want to make today.

In the last decade of the cold war the Soviet Union – the Soviet state – was portrayed in the West as a vast chaotic shambles in which nothing worked, all was cheap and second rate; a state which never managed to produce a decent refrigerator, and whose chosen motor car was the Lada, built on the cast-off assembly line from the Fiat factories. Oddly enough though, in the midst of this ocean of mediocrity there were apparently exceptions – oases of excellence. Somehow the So-iet military – and the Soviet intelligence services – had escaped the bureaucratic nightmare which was the Soviet command economy and had become the exception which proved the rule: they were efficient and a deadly threat to us. This never seemed likely to me and I was delighted to read the book by the pseudonymous Soviet defector Viktor Suvorov, called The Liberators: inside the Soviet Army. In The Liberators, published in London in 1981, Suvorov portrayed the Soviet armed forces I expected to find: a brutal, inefficient, cynical, farcical army of conscripts, skiving off at the first opportunity and doing their best to stay permanently smashed on anything they could smoke, drink or inject – the mirror image of wider Soviet society, in short; and about as threatening to NATO as the girl guides.

Alas for Suvorov, his handlers in the British (?) state did not seem happy with this portrayal of the Soviet armed forces and the next year he published – or put his name to – another book whose main title was the subtitle of his previous book: Inside the Soviet Army. In the year since The Liberators Mr Suvorov had experienced a dramatic change of memory and his second book presented the efficient, menacing, Red Army required by Western intelligence and military budgets. Suvorov subsequently wrote – or put his name to – a whole slew of books amplifying the Soviet menace in the 1980s. The range of his expertise was astonishing for a relatively junior officer…………. Flipping through some of those recently I was reminded of Derek Draper’s immortal response to the question, ‘Did you actually write your book New Labour’s First 100 Days?’ ‘Write it?’ said Draper. ‘I didn’t even read it.’

File the Suvorov episode away as a dramatic example of the way host countries manipulate defectors; and remember his name the next time you read about the new ‘threats’ facing NATO.

Looking at the West from the position of the free market right, the state – the public sector – is by definition the quintessence of inefficiency: states are neither rational nor efficient distributors of resources. But where are the free market critics of the security agencies? Where were the shouts of derision from stage right when the MI5 and MI6 – so I read – overspent the budgets on their new buildings by £200 million?

Taking the piss

What was that £200 million overspend? What did it mean? First, it was hardly an overspend. I might overspend on my weekly budget; you don’t overspend by £200 million. It’s the wrong term: but I’m not sure what the correct term would be in bureaucratic language. The £200 million was a big ‘fuck you’ to the rest of Whitehall – and the politicians. Whitehall couldn’t stop them and didn’t bother telling the politicians until it had happened. There was the tiniest squeak of outrage from the House of Commons and the whole thing has been buried. Now MI6 sit on the Thames, in all their architectural, post-modern pomp. Think of the contrast between the days of Menzies – even Oldfield – between the willing embrace of anonymity in the service of the state and nation so beautifully and apparently accurately described by John Le Carré, and today’s flashy display. If Menzies and Oldfield thought they were playing the master game at some level, they had the good taste not to flaunt it the way today’s MI6 are doing. That building is taking the piss; that building is asking to have a grenade fired at it. And the politicians are too afraid to say so.

I mentioned that the so-called overspend of £200 million by our secret servants produced a squeak of outrage from the House of Commons. That squeak came from the the Public Accounts Committee. The committee nominally dealing with our secret servants, the Intelligence and Security Committee, said nothing; and said nothing because it is not allowed to say anything not vetted by the FCO – sorry Foreign and Commonwealth Office – and the Home Office. The ISC is invited to do X or Y. (3)

For example, on the opening page of the ISC report on the Mitrokhin Inquiry, there is the formal letter from ISC chair Tom King which begins:

‘Dear Prime Minister, on 13th September 1999 you and the Home Secretary invited the Intelligence and Security committee to examine the policies and procedures…..’

On p 10 we read ‘The Home Secretary wrote to the ISC Chairman on 8th October establishing the inquiry’s terms of reference….’

This what you are allowed to do……..

While the ISC were being invited to look at Mitrokhin and the way he was handled by MI6, messrs Shayler and Tomlinson, the two most important defectors from the British security agencies since Philby, were in exile in one case and in jail in the other. While Shayler was sitting in a French jail the House of Commons had its first debate on the work of the ISC which had produced its first report that summer: neither report nor debate mentioned Shayler.

To my knowledge no Labour politicians have met either of them; not one. None of the ISC members of course; they are forbidden to talk to either Tomlinson or Shayler unless invited to do so by higher authorities. Yes, while Tomlinson and Shayler talked of assassination plots by employees of HMG, our politicians were sitting in the sand pit, given 50 year-old allegations about Melita Norwood to play with – allegations which, even if true, mattered little in 1950 and mean nothing today.

This is taking the piss.

Why are our politicians so passive?

Which brings me to another of the recurring questions of the past 15 years: why are our politicians so passive in this field? Why do MPs sit on the ISC doing degrading, keep-em-busy, shit-work? Why do MPs take no notice of a £200 million overspend? From a Conservative government we would expect nothing else, of course. The security agencies simply are not on their agenda. The Tories are historically the Queen and country party, after all; they have had institutional links with the security agencies for the past 100 years. And while the Tories accept that in general terms the state is often the problem and should be reduced if possible, they also believe that the security agencies are a miraculous exception to the general incompetence of public organisations; are, indeed, paragons of efficiency and virtue which need no supervision. They are splendid chaps, doing a wonderful job. I can hear ISC chair, former Tory Minister of Defence and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Tom King saying that: ‘splendid chaps doing a wonderful job.’ Tom King, as they say, isn’t the sharpest knife in the kitchen drawer. This may explain why Mr Blair left him in the job when Labour won the election in 1997.

The Labour Party’s passivity in face of the secret state is a more complex phenomenon. Partly it is simply a reflection of wider passivity in the face of the state per se. The idea that the British state is a problem has never really been part of the culture of the Labour Party. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the idea – the myth – of civil service neutrality is believed by the upper echelons of the Labour Party. And there is a distant folk memory of Harold Wilson’s attempt to challenge the power of the Treasury in his first government – and his defeat by them. In practice the idea that the state is a problem is too difficult, has too many awkward ramifications, for Labour politicians. And if, say, the power of the civil service in an ordinary government department looks too difficult to challenge, the secret state is simply off the agenda at the parliamentary Labour Party level.

In the 1980s doing something about the secret state was on the Labour Party’ formal agenda – right at the bottom, it is true, but it was on there. It was there because of pressure from ordinary members of the left-wing of the Labour Party – people like me who had read a few books. In those days it was possible for members to actually do things; these days members are just people who fill in standing order forms and work to elect the candidates picked by head office.

There was no real intent by the leadership group around Neil Kinnock, however. To them it was all just noises off stage, rantings from the left. This changed a little in 1986/87 after the series of revelations from Peter Wright, Colin Wallace and Cathy Massiter which confirmed all but the most paranoid lefty’s view of the security agencies’ institutional hostility to the Labour Party and Labour movement.

For a few moments there Neil Kinnock even threatened to do something. A member of his personal staff actually phoned ‘Spycatcher’ Peter Wright in Australia in the run-up to the attempt by the British government to stop the publication of Wright’s book. It does not seem to have occurred to Kinnock and co. that every phone within a mile of Wright and his legal team was tapped of course, and the NSA had their resources on the case. The information about the call from Kinnock’s office was duly passed – presumably from the NSA via GCHQ – to the Tories. Mrs Thatcher then stood up in the Commons and denounced Kinnock for talking to a traitor. It was one of those moments when a little more wit or bottle might changed things.

Kinnock and his team flunked it

He should have laughed at her – but he didn’t. He should have asked her how she knew the content of the phone call – but he didn’t. He should have derided her talk of treason and pointed out that Wright, a senior member of MI5, was saying that parts of MI5 had been plotting against his party. He should have raised the cry of treason. But he didn’t. In the event, taunted by Mrs Thatcher, Neil Kinnock panicked, rushed to wrap himself in the flag and declare himself a loyal patriotic Brit; and the whole subject of the security agencies was wiped off the Kinnock team’s blackboard. And it has never returned.

Neil Kinnock panicked, and Labour MPs walk away from this field, because they don’t know anything. A Neil Kinnock – even an averagely conscientious MP – has so much to do, so much paper to process, that he or she is never going to be able to read enough to master this field. And this field looks uniquely dangerous to MPs, especially on the left. Nobody with an ounce of career-mindedness is going to take a critical interest in the security agencies. For MPs believe – whether this is a rational belief or not – that the security agencies can destroy them. And in a subject so dangerous no MP is going to be advised what to say. I spent years sending out such advice to Labour MPs: not a word of it was acted on. So: as they don’t know what to say or do, they say and do nothing.

It is unclear to me how rational is the belief of MPs that the security agencies could destroy them. It is clear from Colin Wallace’s documents that in 1973/4 MI5 was trawling through MPs’ private lives gathering dirt. But evidence of security agency-gathered material wrecking MPs careers is thin. There are some cases in the Wilson period of MPs who wanted to become Ministers having their careers blocked by bad references from MI5. But the MP who has done the most attacking of the security agencies, Ken Livingstone, survived and is now Mayor of London.

On the other hand there is the case of Tom Spencer MEP, who until last year was the leader of the Tory group of MEPs in the European Parliament. I remember getting a call from an MEP’s researcher in Brussels asking me who Spencer was. ‘Never heard of him,’ I replied. ‘Why?’ It turned out Spencer had been asking questions about a rather sensitive American project whose initials are HAARP which links to various mind control and weather modification projects. This was about the only time I made a correct prediction. I said to the researcher something to the effect that Spencer better watch out, because the Yanks would go for him if he continued poking around in that field. And lo and behold, about six months later, Customs just happened to pick his bags to search and just happened to find some cocaine and some porno mags in them. Cue media interest; cue end of Tom Spencer’s political career. There is one MP in the Commons who is having a go at the secret state, a Liberal-Democrat called Norman Baker. If you see smear stories about him you will know whence the stories came.

However, the ‘Wilson plots’ story of the 1986-9 period, the biggest source of information on the activities of the security agencies in this country in the post-war era came and went; and, despite file drawers full of cuttings, it had virtually no effect on the political system. Nobody was fired; no meaningful structural changes were made to the security agencies. It is said that they were persuaded to broaden the base of their recruitment and rely less on the old boy public school network; but no meaningful political oversight, let alone political control, was introduced.

You can tell that nothing has changed because MI5 and MI6 can spend £200 million more than they should have and get away with it. Indeed they must be thinking: why didn’t we spend more? They said nothing about £200 million, maybe we could have had £400! The security agencies must love having this lot in office. Utterly ignorant of their activities – and determined to remain ignorant.

For the leadership of the Labour Party the process of becoming respectable, becoming electable, not only meant not challenging the power of the City of London, it also means not challenging – not even talking about – the secret state.

Of course the subject was never on the agenda of the Blair faction. Within his inner group we have Peter Mandelson who has been around MI6 since his early 20s, and Jonathan Powell, ex-FCO in Washington and, it has been alleged, the MI6 man there, before joining Blair. (For this latter charge there is no evidence, to my knowledge; and I suspect that if it were true Mr Tomlinson would have found a way to let us know by now.) Four of the Blair cabinet are alumni of the Anglo-American elite group the British American Project; three of the Blair cabinet have passed muster at Bilderberg meetings; and the entire Defence team in Blair’s first Cabinet in 1997 were members or associates of the Trade Union Committee for European and Transatlantic Unity, created by the Americans in the 1970s – probably though not yet provably created by the CIA – and currently funded by NATO.

Blair, like his Conservative Party counterparts, believes – or pretends to believe – that the security agencies are splendid chaps doing a splendid job who need no supervision from mere politicians……

As the publisher of a little magazine interested in this field I have met a number of whistle-blowers and victims of HMG’s secret organisations; and in all the cases of which I have knowledge the same pattern emerges: honest, decent, loyal, patriotic members of this society get screwed because they know something the secret state would rather the rest of us didn’t now. The secret state’s response to Fred Holroyd, Colin Wallace, John Burnes, Harold Smith, and most recently Shayler and Tomlinson, is always the same: never mind the content of what they are saying; never mind their previous service to the state, fuck up their lives. Fred Holroyd was put in a mental hospital. Colin Wallace was framed for manslaughter. Less well known, John Burnes was persecuted by MI5. Persons unknown tried to get him killed by the INLA, then tried to frame him for robbery. A post-grad student at the time, he had his grant withdrawn; and, after training as a teacher, he was blocked by MI5 from teaching. His offence? He had the temerity to fall in love with and marry the wife of Sir Thomas Legg, at the time the Lord Chancellor’s Department’s liaison with MI5. It was Legg who appointed the judge who oversaw the framing of Colin Wallace. The crazy conspiracy theorists in MI5 concluded that Burnes was a KGB agent who had targeted Legg. Burnes discovered that his wife, Legg’s ex, had been using accounts in Burnes’ name to launder money for MI6. At one point Burnes sought political asylum in Holland.

And there is Shayler and Tomlinson…..

The really stupid thing is that none of these people wanted to blow the whistle, wanted to make trouble. All have been pushed into the role by the incompetent personnel management of our secret servants.

It amazes me that anyone would work for them, so awful are they to work for. Take Jonathan Moyle, a not very bright, gung-ho Queen and country man. Young Moyle, while at University at Aberystwyth, was a Special Branch snitch who thought it his patriotic duty to tell the local SB who was smoking dope. On graduating he became an agent for – well, MI6 probably, though who knows? Moyle ended up being murdered in Chile. According to the book about him, Moyle wasn’t very subtle as an intelligence asset and was poking around the Chilean arms dealer Cardoen – one of Mark Thatcher’s friends – while Cardoen was doing a big helicopter deal with the Iraqis. This was in the run-up to the American attack on Iraq. Moyle ended up dead in a wardrobe in Chile and what does the local FCO guy do? Tells the media that Moyle was the victim of an auto-erotic accident: strangled himself while having a wank.

There is lot of this about, apparently. James Rusbridger, the writer on intelligence, apparently died this way; and so, apparently, did Tory MP Stephen Milligan, PPS to Jonathan Aitken. Does my nose wrinkle at this? Just a bit, I have to confess.

Maybe there are people here thinking of working for the secret departments of HMG. My advice would be consider the experience of Moyle, John Burnes and Colin Wallace before you do.

One of the major themes of Colin Wallace was the internecine conflicts in Northern Ireland between MI5, MI6, the RUC Special Branch and the Army. These conflicts are still going on. There was a major outbreak of leaks – ie of official secrets – to the press in the early 1990s when the Special Branch was trying to resist MI5’s take-over of the anti-terrorism franchise. MI5 won. Part of the reason for MI5’s hatred of David Shayler is his revelation of just how incompetent MI5 were in dealing with the IRA in the UK having won that franchise.

Currently there is a major struggle going on between the RUC Special Branch and the Army, with the RUC leaking to the Sunday Times the details of the campaign of assassinations in Northern Ireland by the Army’s Force Research Unit, the FRU. A barrow-load of official secrets have been exposed in this one. We have the extraordinary situation in which one arm of the British secret state is trying to bust the journalist concerned, Liam Clarke, for leaking information given to him by another of the state’s secret arms.

Telling lies in the Torygraph

Meanwhile MI6 have returned to planting disinformation in the British media – most of it that I can see is going into the Sunday Telegraph. Tomlinson told us about the 20-strong I/Ops – Information Operations – unit in that shiny building on the Thames. But its existence had been visible for a long time. It is increasingly difficult to take the talk of official secrets seriously. The Sunday Telegraph of 24 September carried two pieces from MI6. There was a puff piece by former MI6 officer Alan Petty, using his nom de plume Alan Judd, on the MI6 building in the wake of the IRA attack on it; and there was the latest in the long line of anti-Gaddafi pieces, this one claiming that Libya now has some North Korean ballistic missiles. The only stated source for the allegation was a ‘Western intelligence official’.

But four months before, on 28 May 2000, the Sunday Times article ‘IRA investors make 300% profit out of Gaddafi cash donations’, sourced back to ‘MI5 documents seen by The Sunday Times‘, concluded by telling us that Swiss police were ‘investigating the supply to Libya from Taiwan of plans and parts for Scud missiles.’ Well, does Gaddafi have Taiwanese Scuds (MI5 story planted in the Sunday Times) or North Korean missiles (MI6 story planted in the Sunday Telegraph)?

Sometimes these MI6 planted stories are really laughable. The Sunday Telegraph of 30 July carried a story by Christina Lamb, ‘Diplomatic Correspondent’ which claimed that Saddam Hussein had sent belly dancing assassins to London to murder his opponents there. Lamb sourced this to ‘a Foreign Office official’, the traditional euphemism for MI6.

This may seem comic, frivolous even – at worst a waste of public money. But it’s more serious than that. The Sunday Times was a serious, respectable newspaper until Andrew Neil became its editor in the mid-1980s and turned it into a mouth-piece for MI5 and the MOD to run their rubbish through. The Sunday Telegraph shows all the signs of going down the same dangerous path. But then I’m an old-fashioned kind of a person who thinks the quality and independence of our mass media is important.

If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, secrecy is the first refuge of the incompetent – or the illegal. Because this is the issue. The suspicion of people like me is that the security agencies want secrecy to cover their incompetence and their feather-bedding; and also to conceal activities they would rather we didn’t know – activities they shouldn’t be engaged in. MI6 is not supposed to be in the business of assassinating foreign leaders, even if that leader is on the Americans’ shit list like Milosevic. MI5 is not supposed to be in the business of collecting and distributing the dirt on British MPs – which is what they were doing in the 1970s. What else have they been doing, free from the gaze of politicians and journalists? At root I suspect what they are most keen to conceal is the extent to which they have been working in, manipulating, civil society. The Wilson plots story was an example of these activities erupting into the public gaze.

At each step as the police increase their powers, we hear ‘If you are innocent you have nothing to fear’. Anybody who has been half awake in the last 20 years knows that this is simply nonsense; that many – dozens, maybe hundreds – of the innocent have been routinely framed and incarcerated by our legal system. But this statement can be levelled at the security agencies: if what you have been doing is above board, show us the files. Take out the agents’ names – fine. Nobody expects to see them. But for the rest…. of course it won’t happen, not here; not with politicians as docile and cowed as the ones we currently have.

It is absolutely typical of this society that the recent legislation passed which – allegedly – will protect whistle-blowers, does not encompass the heart of the state: police, military, intelligence. It is absolutely typical that the security agencies have been given blanket immunity from the provision of the Data Protection Act. It is also absolutely typical of our security agencies that rather than be less secretive, less authoritarian, less vindictive, less illegal and less bloody incompetent, they are going to introduce psychometric testing of their employees to try and weed out any future Shaylers and Tomlinsons.

Finally, to return to the title of this talk, the security agencies: getting it right in modern society. In one sense MI6 and MI5 have got it right, are, in fact, a brilliant success. Faced with their biggest crisis of the post-war period, the end of the Red Menace which justified the budgets, the careers and the gongs, they have emerged with budgets renewed, new agendas approved; untouched by the politicians, unsupervised by anyone, still – we are not supposed to laugh – still accountable to the Crown not Parliament ( i.e. to no-one). Both MI6 and MI5 have reacted to the new conditions post Cold War in thoroughly competent, even creative ways. Needing something to justify the budget, MI6 picked the international drug trade. Far as I know, since MI6 joined the ‘war against drugs’ the price of cocaine and heroin in the UK at street level has halved: it is now cheaper to get off your face, as they say in Hull, on smack than it is on alcohol. And didn’t I read a few months ago that MI6 had persuaded Clare Short to task them to provide her with early warning of coups in the developing world? An honest-to-goodness license to do anything, anywhere. Only a Labour government, timid and ignorant, would fall for a proposal as preposterous as that one.

MI5 hardly paused for breath after losing the KGB ‘threat’ contained in the Soviet Embassy and its Trade Mission, before acquiring the domestic terrorism franchise from the Met Special Branch and beginning the process of hyping up the animal rights and green activists as a new terrorist threat. (And they are getting a new definition of terrorism run through the Houses of Parliament to support it.)

Of course, only the politicians and some of the media – the handful who are paying any attention at all – take the talk of the war on drugs seriously. MI6 don’t, I am sure; any more than they seriously intend to provide Clare Short with an early warning of coups in the Third World. At the higher levels of MI6, MI5 and all the rest they must be chortling in the senior dining rooms at the incredible gullibility of the British political class – and this present lot in particular.


  1. A talk given at the International Centre for Security Analysis, London, on 8 November 2000.
  2. Professor Lawrence Freedman, head of King’s College, to which the ICSA is attached.
  3. The head of the ISC’s Secretariat, John Morrison, was at the meeting and told me this was incorrect. At time of going to press I had not found out how the subject matter of ISC’s activities is generated. In the 2001 Commons debate on the annual report of ISC the outgoing chairman, Tom King, remarked of the committee: ‘We have developed our role and our operating practices, which are not set out in legislation‘ (emphasis added).
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