Continuing with the security theme, yesterday saw the release of the annual report from the Intelligence and Security Committee. The last report they issued was the gobsmacking whitewash on extraordinary rendition, which decided that MI5's involvement in the CIA kidnapping of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna because they'd changed the definition of what exactly an "extraordinary rendition" is. To quote from the toadying, ridiculously trusting report:
D.Those operations detailed above, involving UK Agencies’ knowledge or involvement, are “Renditions to Justice”, “Military Renditions”and “Renditions to “the Detention”. They are not “Extraordinary Renditions”, which we define as extra-judicial transfer of persons from one jurisdiction or State to another, for the purposes of detention and interrogation outside the normal legal system,where there is a real risk of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.
The security services were therefore cleared of any complicit involvement in extraordinary rendition. Aren't our investigating parliamentary committees wonderful?
Just where do you go from issuing such a laughable written record of sycophancy and admiring disregard for anything other than a clean bill of health for our glorious saviours in MI5 and SIS? To an even more hilariously censored account (PDF) which manages to inform you of almost precisely nothing you didn't already know.
Richard Norton-Taylor on CiF has already said it best, but the whole report has to be read to be believed. There isn't a page that goes by that isn't affected in some way by material it's felt to sensitive for the public to read, and so is instead replaced with asterisks. Predictably, we aren't told how much the security services are either spending or being allocated in funding, but some of the removals just make the whole thing completely impossible to understand or make your marvel at just what the point of even bothering to issue a report was. There's this for example:
We are now engaged in a range of counter-terrorism work; direct pursuit of terrorists, ***, capacity-building with key [countries,] and – this is an absolutely vital point
***. So put like that and defined like that, this takes up about 56 per cent of our effort… and it is rising.
SIS has improved its *** and its understanding of the factors that have the potential to affect radicalisation and extremism in the UK.
Its what? Its cookery? Its archery? Its performance? Its dick waving?
The media have focused on the fact that GCHQ suffered from flooding last year and the report's inquest into that, but far more interesting is the report's comments on media relations, the stopping of the SFO inquiry into the BAE slush fund and the possibility of intercept evidence being made admissible. These seem to be Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller's comments on the coverage of the Birmingham beheading plot raids:
We were very angry, but it is not clear who we should be angry with, that most of the story of the arrests in Op GAMBLE were in the media very, very fast. Indeed, before the arrests in Birmingham, the press were pre-positioned and before the police had picked up one of the plotters and the surveillance was still out looking for them, the story was in the press.We've never got to the bottom of who was behind the leaking, mainly to the Scum, but most of the fingers were being pointed directly at the Home Office. Not that they're the only guilty parties; the Met, the security services themselves and other interested parties have all leaked stories for their own benefit in recent years. The solution to this though doesn't appear to be to ensure that accurate, non-sensationalist information is supplied by the police or others when arrests are made, transparently making the news available to all rather than just a few, but instead to tighten the screw on the media in its entirety, with again predictably the complaint being that "lives are at risk":
So the case was potentially jeopardised by the exposure of what the story was. My officers and the police were jeopardised by them being on operations when the story broke. The strategy of the police for interrogating those arrested was blown out of the water, and my staff felt pretty depressed about the fact that this had happened.
The current system for handling national security information through DA-Notices, and the Agencies’ relationships with the media more generally, is not working as effectively as it might and this is putting lives at risk. We recommend that the Government engage with the media to develop a new, effective system, with a view to protecting intelligence work, operations, sources and criminal prosecutions, whilst ensuring that the media continue to report on important matters of public interest.
The government engage with the media? Who is the committee kidding? Either it will put down more chilling legislation which rather than affecting the sensationalism in the aftermath of the foiling of a "plot" will instead stop legitimate reporting and investigation, or it'll do nothing.
The committee's unquestioning approach to the evidence given them by the security services is once again highlighted by their pitiful investigation into whether there really was a threat of the Saudis withdrawing intelligence cooperation if the SFO investigation into corruption continued:
106. We asked the Chief of SIS about the Saudi threat to withdraw co-operation:
There was some suggestion in some of the media coverage that there was no *** threat to our co-operation… that is not true. There were threats made to the existence of the co-operation [and] there was reason to take those threats seriously…
If the committee is well briefed, it would know that the intelligence between all the major western intelligence agencies is now pooled and shared. Even if the Saudis had withdrawn their cooperation with SIS, they would never dare remove their cooperation with the Americans, who in any case would then have submitted the same information to us. If John Scarlett was questioned about that, it sure isn't in the report.
U. The Committee is satisfied that, at the time, there were serious national security considerations which contributed to the Serious Fraud Ofice’s decision to halt the investigation into BAE Systems’ dealings with Saudi Arabia.
Even if there were, it was still the equivalent of giving into blackmail and letting a foreign country dictate to us what we could and could not do in relation to more than substantiated allegations of corruption. We would never give in to such demands from terrorists or the likes of Iran, so why with our supposed friends? The rule of law means nothing when it comes to continuing the arming of a country with one of the worst human rights records in the Middle East.
Onto intercept evidence. Surprise, surprise, the agencies are firmly against, and the committee certainly isn't convinced either:
113. The Agencies, however, are adamant that their intercept capabilities must not be disclosed in court. If they were, criminals and terrorists would quickly learn what the Agencies can and cannot do, and would emd means of avoiding detection, which would then damage their capability and coverage. Other countries, however, allow the use of intercept as evidence without any adverse impact on their security and intelligence capability, so what makes the UK different?
GCHQ points to a unique combination of factors in the UK:
The UK is the only country which has all three of the following things: an adversarial legal system, subordination to [the European Convention on Human Rights] and a strategic intercept and SIGINT capacity that is worth protecting.
The tabloids' aversion to the HRA seems to be contagious; even the security agencies are now making spurious allusions to the ECHR somehow making it obvious how intercept evidence can't possibly be made admissible. The next paragraph is completely open about how poor some of the intercept evidence is, rather than "strategic" and "worth protecting":
In practice, because of the UK’s adversarial legal system, the defence would be able to test the validity of evidence and thereby explore how it was obtained. As communications technology evolves (particularly internet protocol), we understand it may be dificult for the Agencies to be able to prove intercept to an evidential standard.
So there you are. Admittance that the evidence which currently means those on control orders can't be prosecuted is so flaky or unable to back-up that it would be unlikely to stand up in court. No wonder that the agencies are against it; the last thing they want to look is either stupid or for it to be shown that men innocent of any crime have been held under the equivalent of house arrest for years on their say so.
117. The Director of GCHQ summarised the test for allowing intercept:
… a change to allow intercept as evidence should be introduced only when doing so would have a net benfeit in securing the safety and the security of the UK. By that I mean not just convicting and imprisoning criminals, but also preventing crimes and terrorist actions.
Which just happens to be a test which you'll never be able to come to a definitive conclusion about. Best not to even try then; after all, who cares about those stuck in the eternal limbo of the control order regime, driven to severe depression like Cerie Bullivant, whose only crime seems to have been to have associated with relatives of the fertiliser bomb plotter Anthony Garcia, who had his order quashed yesterday by a judge who was heavily critical of the Home Office.
Its conclusion then:
V. Intercept is of crucial importance to the capability of the Agencies to protect the UK, its citizens and its interests overseas. Any move to permit the use of intercept evidence in court proceedings must be on a basis that does not jeopardise that capability.
In other words, more blackmail. Introduce this and we won't be able to do our jobs properly. Never mind that numerous other countries in Europe also signed up to the ECHR manage it, and that the security services are more than happy with the results of their bugging, crucial to the Crevice trial and now the beheading plot being made available as evidence, intercept would be a step too far. Just what are they so scared of?
The only real showing of teeth by the committee was being denied access to a document prepared for ministers about "an important matter", apparently related to a foreign operation, which the foreign secretary at the time was happy to be given them. The prime minister didn't agree, and the committee said that doesn't say much about his previous pledge to make the committee more transparent.
Indeed, Brown and this government's intentions of doing just that could not be more summed up than in the choice of who to replace Paul Murphy, previous chairman and now the Welsh secretary after Peter Hain's resignation. Margaret Beckett, whose previous performance in her last two jobs, as head of DEFRA and then foreign secretary were both execrable, could not be either more establishment or less likely to ask the pertinent questions needed of the security services. So much too for the independent investigator that the committee was promised. The only way the security services will ever be held properly to account will be if a watchdog similar to the Independent Police Complaints Commission or the Information Commissioner were to be set-up. Why for instance should the head of MI5 be able to make doommongering statements about the terrorist threat in public and then refuse to give evidence to a parliamentary committee under the same scrutiny? Just how far the inroads into everyday life the security services are making were revealed in statistics released this week by Sir Paul Kennedy, which showed that more than 250,000 requests were made to monitor phone-calls, emails and post in just 9 months. The surveillance state is ever growing, yet there is not even the slightest attempt to provide accountability. That simply has to change.
Labels: BAe Systems, Birmingham terror raids, GCHQ, intelligence agencies, Intelligence and Security Committee, intercept evidence, leaks, MI5, MI6, Saudi Arabia, terror