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Tuesday, August 01, 2006 

Spooks without mouths.

In the unending battle to make as many members of the public fearful of brown men exploding in their vicinity as possible, today has seen the unveiling of the "official assessment of the threat of a terrorist attack". The threat level is calculated by taking into account "Available intelligence" (meaning the ramblings of the cranks and assorted weirdos which make up MI5's outside horse whisperers), "Terrorist capability" (meaning whether those who hate our freedom come to the inspired plan to smear ricin they don't have on doorknobs when it has to pierce the skin to be effective), "Terrorist intentions" (realising that the average jihadi is less likely to blow himself up in the middle of Epping forest than he is at a football game, for instance) and "Timescale" (meaning whether MI5 can tell how early the terrorists are getting out of bed on the morning of the destined day of attack).

Yes, I'm being rather glib. When faced with such nonsense clearly aimed at keeping the public scared and failing uniformly in its purposed role to help the average joe assess the level of genuine threat posed though, this system is second only to the American traffic-light like advice. If anything, the American system is actually less panicky, as it doesn't have the critical brown trousers time highest level which our political masters have deemed necessary. The other problem with the system is obvious: is the "threat" ever going to be lower than "substantial"? It seems highly unlikely.

Unfortunately for the government, it releases this system designed to frighten on the same day that the joint committee on human rights, containing both MPs and peers, has come to the conclusion that the security services urgently need a watchdog.

Our dependence on the spooks of 5 and 6 has in these troubled times increased to a greater degree even than that at the height of the threat from the IRA. Sadly, they show no signs of realising that they need to be accountable just like every other organisation dedicated to protecting the public. It's true that the bad old days, when MI5 thought that Jack Straw was a subversive purely because he was head of the National Union of Students at the tail-end of the 60s (he was New Labour like even back then) are gone, although in the more recent past in 1994 they were so concerned about Victoria Brittain (a former foreign associate editor of the Guardian, most recently wrote the play Guantanamo and co-wrote Mozzam Begg's memoir of his time there) that they were tapping her phone and considered breaking into her house to plant a bug, according to David Shayler. Craig Murray, in his memoir of his time in Uzbekistan, recalls how while staying with a friend in London he mentioned that he was minded to return to the country without getting medical clearance. Within hours he was receiving phone calls from the Foreign Office telling him that to do so would be a disciplinary offence. For an organisation that defends itself by saying it only monitors "subversives working to undermine democracy" such examples must be embarrassing.

Not as embarrassing for the government though as the current head of MI5's refusal to even appear before the commons joint committee on human rights. They wanted to question Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller about the refusal of the government and MI5 to make wire-tap evidence admissible in UK courts, as well as the agency's reliance on "intelligence" obtained via torture, and how much she knew about the US policy of "extraordinary rendition", jets involved in which having landed at airports across Britain. Her objection to even giving evidence in closed session seems increasingly at odds with organisations that once were so secretive that their existence was denied; today they openly advertise in the newspapers and online for recruits.

The questions the committee wanted to ask her are urgent and increasingly important. The ban on wire-tap evidence is based on MI5's insistence that to present such evidence to a jury would involve giving away their methods. This is despite such evidence being used routinely in the United States and other nations across the globe. It's also strange considering how evidence against the men accused of plotting to bomb the Ministry of Sound in London obtained via bugging or wire-tapping has been made freely available to the media. It makes you wonder whether those terrorist suspects that the government is so desperate to deport could be tried here if such evidence was made admissible, something which the government refuses to discuss or countenance. There's no doubting that is something the committee would have liked to have asked Buller. Craig Murray ably exposed how MI5 and 6 are using intelligence sourced from the torture chambers of countries such as Uzbekistan, as it is passed on to them from the CIA. Some lawyers consider the use of such "intelligence" to break international law. On rendition, the government refuses to comment any further, and as we've seen in recent days, the United States seems to be able to operate with impunity in our airspace, making the transporting of terror suspects to secret prisons through Britain even more likely.

The committee proposes "an "arm's length" body independent of government and the agencies, which would report to parliament." MI5 and SIS would almost certainly fight tooth and nail to stop from such a system from being put into place, and there are no signs that the government is willing to anger the spooks, even if they provide such duff intelligence that it results in innocent men being shot, their neighbours brutalised and houses torn to shreds. After all, they'll remember the plots against Harold Wilson. The arguments for such a watchdog though should are obvious. The police have the IPCC. The prison system has a independent inspector. Why should MI5 and SIS be any different? In the meantime, Richard Tomlinson, a former MI6 agent still being pursued by his former employees, has set up a database of known officers in an attempt to get the property taken from him back. For now it's about the most that is being done to hold these shadowy organisations to account.

Update: I just noticed that I accidentally posted this without any corresponding links. Doh. Fixed now.

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