Guardian : MI6 and MI5 must be held to account

Monday, April 30, 2012

MI6 and MI5 must be held to account

The Gareth Williams case is just one in a series of failings – the security services need reform, for our sake and theirs

Richard Norton-Taylor | April 30, 2012

Britain's security and intelligence agencies, MI5 and MI6, have always been the targets of criticism, conspiracy theories, all sorts of allegations. And they are used to it.

But this time is different. They are mired in unprecedented controversy, desperately trying to withstand growing evidence – evidence, not just allegations – of unacceptable activities, specifically conniving with Gaddafi's secret police over the fate of Libyan dissidents.

The inquest into the death of Gareth Williams, the GCHQ computer expert, has revealed a side to MI6 management that raises serious questions about its duty of care to its own staff. Williams was missing for a week before MI6, to which he was seconded, notified the police and his family. The delay seriously hampered the investigation and caused distress to those close to the young man. Williams's naked body was discovered inside a locked hold-all in his flat more than a week after he failed to turn up to a scheduled meeting at Vauxhall Cross, the agency's headquarters on the Thames in August 2010.

A GCHQ witness told the inquest that action should have been taken on the first day of Williams's absence. A female MI6 officer, witness F, apologised saying "it clearly took too long" to do anything about it. She blamed Williams's line manager, identified only as witness G, and what she called a "breakdown in communications".

MI6's attitude seems even less explicable given that Williams had already made it clear he was unhappy working at Vauxhall Cross. "My understanding through conversations with Gareth at the time was that there was some frustration in that the job was not quite what he anticipated", G told the inquest. He was "frustrated by the amount of process risk mitigation".

Not for the first time, bureaucratic procedures designed to minimise risk in Britain's security and intelligence agencies had not taken into account an individual's sensitivities. The ethos in GCHQ is quite different to that prevailing in MI6.

MI6 and MI5, meanwhile, are facing legal action from opponents of Muammar Gaddafi who sought refuge in Britain. Two were rendered to Tripoli where they were brutally treated. Other dissidents say MI5 pressed them to spy on their fellow refugees in the UK. Salah al-Hashemi, a businessman, has told the Sunday Times he was threatened with detention if he did not accept MI5 demands to supply the Libyan authorities with details of fellow dissidents who had fled to London and Manchester.

According to a Libyan intelligence dossier, a named female MI5 agent wanted Hashemi to feel "pursued by both the British and the Libyan security services in order to make him feel worried enough to seek a friend's advice". The friend, who had been recruited by MI5, would then encourage him to co-operate.

According to the documents, MI5 advised that a dissident in Manchester be told that if he did not supply information, he should be warned that "British security services will arrest him and accuse him of working with Libyan intelligence … or he will face court and be deported to Libya".

MI5's job is to seek informants but only in the interests of protecting Britain's national security. And, according to MI5's own guidelines, such sources must never be coerced into providing information, nor should they be threatened with deportation, or being rendered, back to their own country.

These cases may be pursued in the courts but are unlikely to be resolved at least until the completion of police investigations into the role played by MI5 and MI6 officers and by Labour ministers to whom they were accountable at the time.

Just as well, perhaps. The security and intelligence agencies, MI5 in particular, are facing a huge challenge — namely, securing the Olympics. That is their priority now. After the Olympics, there will in any case be a shake-up with the election of police commissioners and the setting up of a National Crime Agency.

That should be the time for MI5 and MI6 to be subjected to a shake-up in the way they are held to account. They should be scrutinised by an independent inspector general (as security and intelligence agencies are in the US, Australia and Canada) and the parliamentary intelligence and security committee should be made much more robust and effective than the government, and its existing members, have suggested. This would help to restore confidence in them and boost their own morale. Reforms such as these are essential, for the sake of MI5 and MI6, as well as the public.