As the role and reach of British security and intelligence agencies increases, they are being watched – and rightly so
The last thing MI5 and MI6 wanted after the exposure of their involvement, wittingly or otherwise, in the abuse and torture of terror suspects was to be dragged into a huge new controversy. This time, it involved a double agent’s sting operation leading to the capture of an apparently sophisticated “underwear” bomb and the deaths of suspected militants and potential terrorists in US drone attacks.
For the CIA, MI6, and their Saudi and Yemeni partners, it seemed a brilliant intelligence coup. MI5 and MI6’s role would not have been revealed had it not been for it leaking out in Washington.
That their role emerged in the US is deeply embarrassing for Britain’s security and intelligence agencies. Their fury comes with a taste of bitter irony. British ministers, with the backing of MI5 and MI6, have used US anger at snippets of CIA information being disclosed by UK courts as the reason for a change in the law. As was announced in the Queen’s speech earlier this week, any information relevant to legal proceedings held by the intelligence services will be dealt with in secret. That CIA information, it must not be forgotten, contained hard evidence that the UK agencies knew British citizens or residents were abused and did nothing about it.
Now, as a result of information disclosed not in UK courts but in the US press we know that Britain’s security and intelligence agencies were involved in an operation designed, among other things, to target al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) chief bomb-maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri. It seems he has not been found, though we are told by the US media that intelligence garnered by the double agent, a UK passport holder, was used to launch a CIA drone strike that killed a senior AQAP figure, Fahd al-Quso. The US launched further drone strikes on Thursday killing several AQAP suspects.
When Sir Dick White, then head of MI6, learned about a plot to kill Egypt’s nationalist president, Abdul Nasser, in the 1950s, he said MI6 should never be involved in assassinations.
“Assassination,” Sir Richard Dearlove, then head of MI6 told the inquest into the death of Princess Diana, “is no part of the policy of Her Majesty’s government” and would be contrary to the agency’s ethos.
Lethal force, he added, had never been authorised in his 38-year career at MI6.
Under the 1994 Intelligence Services Act, MI6 has to get authority from the foreign secretary to carry out any operation that would involve breaking the law. The CIA is free to target individuals in drone strikes in Yemen, MI6 is not.
“As foreign secretary, I see operational proposals from the agencies every day, amounting to hundreds every year,” William Hague said in a carefully prepared speech last November. “They are often not easy decisions,” he added. “I take ultimate responsibility for these operations, and I do not approve them all.”
Though it has been reported that Jack Straw, foreign secretary at the time, knew of the decision in 2004 to render two Libyan dissidents into the hands of Gaddafi’s secret police, we do not know whether Hague authorised the Yemen sting operation that came to light in the US this week. We may never know.
The US defence secretary Leon Panetta said on Thursday that disclosures about the bomb plot had hurt intelligence efforts. “You have to protect” the agents who are used to penetrate such organisations as al-Qaida, he said.
We also have to protect the integrity of Britain’s security and intelligence agencies. They must be imaginative, skilled, brave, even aggressive, to carry out their work. They also have to be under British political control whatever the CIA or any other foreign intelligence agency might want them to do.
The role and reach of our security and intelligence agencies is increasing and will continue to do so as Britain, like the US, relies more and more on them in future conflicts.
That is why they should be carefully watched, and this week’s leak to the US media welcomed.
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