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Wednesday, October 19, 2011 

Slamming the door shut.

It was a long time ago now, but back in the mists of time (around 2002 if we must be specific) former spooks were rather complimentary about, err, Spooks. Not because of its realism, obviously, as in only the second episode one of the agents was dipped in a deep fat fryer, but more for showing the security services in a highly flattering light. After all, the real services had long been associated in the public imagination if at all by the grey men now also back on our screens in the form of George Smiley, or alternatively by Harold Wilson as the kind of paranoid lunatics who wanted to know where members of the public had bought subversive literature such as the Daily Mirror from. Here instead were young, dynamic attractive self-sacrificing individuals with consciences, even if they did manage to save the world every week all but single-handedly.

Strangely, they're now rather more sniffy about it as the show reaches its climax. This is especially curious as the series as it's continued through the seasons has stayed more or less the same: almost everyone working for MI5 is a saintly lefty, head honcho Harry especially, most recently denouncing oligarchs profiting from earthquakes while still protecting them from murderous anarchists. Yes, he took part in unpleasantness during the Cold War era, but so did everyone. In the current age of rendition and torture, MI5 is spotless; it's everyone else that's dirty, whether it's the CIA, Mossad or the Russians, and they're all out to deceive, even directly target the plucky Brits desperately trying to do the right thing.

Perhaps it's the fact this is such an inversion of reality that so winds up those formerly in the service. There certainly wouldn't be any need for the Gibson inquiry if MI5 and 6, admittedly with the full support of the last government, hadn't at the very least connived in the mistreatment and deportation of "terrorist suspects" to various hellholes across the globe. Incredibly distressing for them and the government was that these ingrates, having been graciously allowed to return to this beacon of human rights and open justice, were now demanding to see the documentation which consigned them there in the first place. Having fought tooth and nail to prevent the "seven paragraphs" from being released, under the ostensible reason that to do so would breach the "control" principle, whereby the foreign intelligence service that provided the information in the first place has full control over what happens to it afterwards, even though an American court had already put far more damning information concerning the torture of Binyam Mohamed into the public domain, this was a far worse threat. Annoying the Americans slightly is one thing, but allowing massive amounts of highly incriminating information, likely to be read completely out of context, to become public was simply unconscionable.

The government green paper published today, titled Justice and Security, is the long in coming attempt to slam the door towards something resembling transparency shut forever. Having rejected the orthodox consensus on responding to scandal that involves complete openness (or as much openness as can be reasonably expected from organisations which must work in secret) about what went wrong so that the mistakes can be learned from, with the Gibson inquiry neutered and the interested parties boycotting it as a result, it's no surprise that it recommends an expansion of the special advocate system already in place for the soon to be abolished control order system and used in the special immigration appeals process. Yes, the thoroughly unsatisfactory system where someone on a control order can't even know what it is exactly they're accused of doing is thought to be good enough to put in place when someone alleging wrongdoing seeks redress through the courts. While no one has suggested that the advocates are patsies and seem to have performed at least a decent job so far, that the claimants themselves cannot have personal access to material concerning them, or indeed, concerning their mistreatment is about as far from open justice as it is possible to imagine.

Equally, no one is suggesting that this isn't a highly difficult area. The supreme court when considering the appeal from the government against the ruling for the freed Guantanamo men agonised over it, before concluding that this was an area where justice must be seen to be done but which parliament should have the final say on. If this is going to happen, then we should be damn sure that such abuses aren't going to happen again in the future. Rather than take the calls for truly independent oversight into the security services seriously, all the green paper proposes is a derisory, ever so slight reform of the intelligence and security committee, the same parliamentary committee that produced the now even more laughable than it was then report on rendition. All it suggests is making it a statutory committee of parliament, as well as beefing up their power to demand material from the security services, who even then will still be able to persuade the security of state to veto any especially onerous requests. It does consult on the possibility of introducing an inspector-general, a layer of oversight used in other countries, but it seems the least likely option rather than the most.

Despite all the fantastic investigative journalism produced by numerous journalists that exposed first the rendition program and then British complicity in it, it was the Binyam Mohamed court case that meant an official inquiry, no matter how crippled, had to be established. Without the release of those seven paragraphs the legal action and settlement would not have followed. Under these proposals it's clear that such information would not in the future become public. This is perfect for organisations desperate for everyone to focus on the unmitigated good they do, and their tireless work to protect us from the few out there who wish us harm, but an injustice when they get things so terribly wrong. As the Guardian argues, none of this would have been necessary had MI5 and 6 not followed the CIA down the road to hell. Cover-ups in turn only make suspicions and grievances worse. A path needs to be found whereby justice must be seen to be done, with those seeking redress able to access the information held on them, while still protecting national security. The proposed system is as much a mockery of the values the services pledge to uphold as Spooks is of the deeply boring, conflicted and overall thoroughly human men and women trying to keep us safe.

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