Behind the murk of spooks and spies

Despite moves towards greater disclosure, MI5 remains an agency shrouded in secrecy, writes Political Editor Harry McGee.

CLICK onto the MI5 website. Yes, it sounds like an oxymoron.

What's a world-famed agency for furtive and secretive dirty tricks doing helpfully explaining 'how the service does its work'; giving pen pictures of all its former directors and giving a full biographical profile of its current head, the gloriously-named Dame Eliza Lydia Manningham-Buller.

For decades, the activities of Britain's security services were hermetically sealed. A veil of secrecy surrounded the agency and its precise functions, the nature and the operatives murky behind its clandestine operations.

From time to time, bits of scraggy information leaked out, courtesy of a spectacular defection or from a John le Carré spy novel.

But in the past 12 years, MI5 has been on a gradual shift to become more open and to lift that traditional veil of secrecy. That move coincided roughly with the end of the cold war and a fundamental change in the role of the organisation.

In the early 1990s, the counter-terrorism role of the agency was expanded to include the Provisional IRA (until then the Metropolitan

Police had responsibility in that area). Nowadays, the job of MI5 is "combating terrorist threats to British interests, both at home and abroad." In practice, that has meant the IRA and other paramilitary organisations in the North. But since the mid-1990s, it has also meant fighting the growing threat from militant Islamic terrorism, which now dominates its work.

Until the 1990s, the only people outside the organisation who knew the identity of the head of MI5 were the prime minister and the secretary of State. Stella Remington, the first female to hold the position, was the first to be publicly identified.

The move towards greater disclosure has been limited.

Manningham-Buller's name is the only one of the 2,500 MI5 personnel made public. And there is no confirmation, acknowledgment, or references to any of the actual operations in which the agency has been involved. But for such a rigidly conservative (and some would say anti-democratic) organisation, the small increase in transparency hasn't been all that short of revolutionary.

The website, for example, features the names and photographs of all former directors. It also explains the range of MI5 covert activities, while denying "myths" that its nefarious activities have included assassinations, or coup plots. It also denies that its operatives or the agents they run have been involved as 'agents provocateur' in other words, implicit in committing crime and murder. Many, including families of victims of alleged collusion cases in the North, would question that blank denial.

"The best way to discover the intentions and actions of organisations and individuals posing a threat to national security is to obtain secret intelligence about their activities," the website states. That means intrusive techniques like secret interception of information; bugging; eavesdropping; and using 'covert human intelligence sources' (agents).

"Agents are one of the most important sources of secret intelligence," says MI5, which says that many can continue for long periods (as can be testified by Denis Donaldson's 20-year double-life).

"For instance, a key objective is to avoid placing the agent in the role of 'agent provocateur', that is inciting those on whom he or she is reporting to commit criminal acts which they would not otherwise have committed."

Note, it's not any criminal act. And that gives an insight into moral and ethical problems that beset this secretive world. Because it involves duplicity and double-dealing, nobody emerges with clean hands. Some crimes, the details of which an agent is aware, will go ahead in order not to compromise the agent. Out of that emerges a hierarchy of allowable and unallowable crimes. The only measure that ultimately matters is "the interest of national security."

In an unprecedented move, a speech by Manningham-Buller in the Netherlands last year was also posted on the site, at her request. She tackled one of the core quandaries at the heart of this debate.

The agency had already adopted the position that intelligence obtained under torture (in Algeria or in Egypt for example) could be used to protect the national interest that stance is shared by the British Government but not by the (judicial) House of Lords.

But she has said that in some cases civil liberties of individuals would have to be compromised in order to protect citizens from terrorist attacks. She accepted that intelligence can often be "patchy and fragmentary and uncertain", as the Iraq experience clearly shows. But her argument was that this intelligence while falling short of satisfying a criminal court may be enough to prevent an attack.

It is one of a number of disturbing issues. By how much do you erode the rights of citizens? How can you be confident of the self-serving agenda of an agent? How far do you go to protect the identity of an agent when those on whom he is touting continue killing and maiming at an "acceptable level"? Where does protecting national security end and interfering with democratic rights and processes begin?

Manningham-Buller, who became MI5 chief in 2002, is a spook to the manor born in all senses of the word. Born in 1948, she is the daughter of a British attorney general, and went to an exclusive private school where her nickname was "Bullying Manner" because of her strident character.

She taught for three years in another exclusive London school before joining MI5 in 1974.

Her work from early in her career focused on counter-terrorism.

During a steady ascent through the ranks, she was involved in the Lockerbie investigation, worked for MI5 in Washington, and in the 1990s she took charge of the division that led the fight against the IRA. It is certain that agents within the Provisionals, such as Donaldson and Freddie 'Stakeknife' Scappaticci would have been known to her.

Her 'jolly hockeysticks' background and education made her archetypal establishment spy material, but ironically she has been the prime mover in modernising the agency.

But MI5 remains, at heart, a secret and secretive organisation. Its currency is intelligence, which is often misleading, dodgy, mendacious and open to many agendas and interpretations. And thus, is the ultimate in the "ends justify the means" school of security.

But like the CIA, you often wonder. The British failed, as the CIA did with 9-11, to identify the threat of the July 7 bombing. And what did having Denis Donaldson among its ranks for 20 years achieve?

Maybe there is something positive in all that murk. But from where we are standing, it's impossible to see.

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