Watching them watching us

April 27, 2007

With ministers deriding civil liberties to tackle an overstated terrorist threat, we need credible oversight of the security services, argues Stephen Dorril

On November 24, 1974, after a series of killings and bombings by the Provisional IRA on the UK mainland that caused the deaths of nearly 50 people, Roy Jenkins, Home Secretary at that time, wrote: "It goes without saying that we must guard against the danger of being driven to more and more extreme measures involving unwarranted infringement of personal liberty."

But we now live in a surveillance society in which civil liberties are not only being lost but are derided by ministers - a society in which 8,000 active dossiers are kept on young Asian men, compiled by a security service bigger than at any time in the past 50 years and in which politicians rely on intelligence fantasies and global conspiracy theories to rubberstamp authoritarian policies. All this is apparently necessary because we live in an unstable world of unprecedented danger.

When I ask students how many people have died in the UK in the past 20 years as a result of international terrorism, the answers I get usually run into hundreds and, occasionally, thousands. When I suggest the figure is about 60, students express astonishment. When I ask how many have died as a result of "the Troubles" (3,500) or were killed by the IRA on the mainland (175) they have no clue. But they do begin to realise that their view of the world is skewed and that the picture presented by politicians and amplified by the media is not necessarily accurate.

When, in the late 1980s, after a decade of security abuses, MI5 shifted itself away from countersubversion to counterterrorism, I feared the move would involve little more than a change of label. That forecast turned out to be true. "Radicalisation" among Muslim youth is now itself regarded as a crime. In the past, membership of the Communist Party or even a letter to a pro-Communist journal was enough for MI5 to open a file on a potential "subversive". Today, attendance at a mosque overseen by a radical cleric, visiting a radical bookshop, owning a DVD on the war in Iraq, attending an anti-Israel talk on campus will be sufficient for a file to be opened on a potential "terrorist".

Jenkins was later convinced that MI5 was "entirely unfitted to judge what is subversion and what is legitimate dissent". Now that we have gung-ho ministers who run roughshod over civil liberties, the situation is likely to be worse. The rise in the number of phone taps and cases that turn out to be "fishing" exercises (pursuing cases to collect intelligence, not to secure convictions) and then collapse suggest that this is, indeed, so.

In Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers, published in 2005, Annie Machon, a middle-ranking officer responsible during the 1990s for countering terrorism, reveals that the secret service was badly managed, had basic technology incompatible with that of other agencies, and was so secretive that vital intelligence was not passed to other agencies.

The Government has thrown large amounts of money at these problems. But can it train 1,000 extra staff to an acceptable level, in a short time? Where are the specialist languages required for intelligence work when so many universities have closed their language courses? If terrorism is such a big problem, why hasn't institutional and bureaucratic resistance been overcome and one counterterrorism agency been set up? Terrorism is still the responsibility of half a dozen different agencies.

A more credible system of oversight of the security services might also help. The Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee is a creature of the Cabinet Office. Moreover, many of its reports are worthless because it is unable to see raw intelligence. How far it knows what goes on inside the services is difficult to assess from these reports anyway since so much is blacked out.

What is required is a proper functioning House of Commons committee with powers to interview staff and retrieve documents, and, importantly, levers to control the budget. But there must also be a willingness to challenge the services' desire to use the terrorist threat to hide their activities from view. While there are counterterror and agent-running operations that must remain secret, there is a need for more open-source intelligence-gathering and greater transparency. The release of material by the Hutton and Butler inquiries illustrated what can be done. Despite the fears of the intelligence services, their world did not fall apart with this limited show of greater openness.

Stephen Dorril is a senior lecturer in print journalism at Huddersfield University. His book The Dogs in the Street Say: British Intelligence and the Troubles will be published by Fourth Estate next year. He will be speaking at Spooked: Cultures of Intelligence in Britain , 1945-2007 at Warwick University on May 12.

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