A weapon against ourselves
The politicisation of intelligence means that a sensible response to terrorism is becoming impossible
Tuesday November 30, 2004
Far from learning anything from the Iraqi weapons dossier fiasco and its damaging aftermath, the government seems more determined than ever to play partisan politics with security and intelligence.
"We are crowding out any space for them on the security agenda," Peter Hain, leader of the Commons, told journalists after the Queen's speech, referring to the Tories and Liberal Democrats. "That will make for an interesting political year," he added.
Hain, who should know better given his political-campaigning past, held out the prospect of frenzied arguments, with ministers baiting opposition parties, accusing them of being soft on terrorism whenever they criticise any aspect of the government's unprecedented clutch of "security" measures. They are in danger of making it almost impossible to have a mature debate about checks and balances, about how far a democratic state should go in trying to achieve the impossible - 100% security.
Take ID cards. They are presented as a panacea when, in reality, they could well lead to a false sense of security. Potential terrorists may not be British. Those who are Britons may not be known to the security services - "clean skins", as they are called. Whether or not they have ID cards may not make any difference as far as their potential, or intent, to commit violent acts is concerned. Spain, where terrorists struck earlier this year, has a well-established system of ID cards.
This is not to be complacent. But ministers' rhetoric is in danger of promoting a climate of cynicism and distrust which might influence juries in court trials - though this problem will be solved if David Blunkett has his way and gets rid of juries in terrorist cases. There is also the danger of promoting a "crying wolf" response - a criticism anti-terrorist officials here make of the US, where repeated public warnings of terrorist attacks, notably given by Tom Ridge, head of US homeland security, turned out to be based on the vaguest of intelligence.
The greatest danger is the politicisation of security and intelligence. Whitehall need only look at Washington. The US does not appear to be learning from its intelligence failures pre-9/11, when the CIA and FBI took their eye off the al-Qaida ball, or from the misleading of the public over Saddam Hussein's banned weapons programme.
George Bush appointed the former Republican congressman, Porter Goss, to take over the post of CIA director from George Tenet. "I intend to clarify beyond doubt the rules of the road," he recently told CIA officers. "We support the administration and its policies in all its work." Loyalty is one thing. To be driven by partisan priorities of the government of the day is quite another.
Goss made it clear he agreed with critics of the agency. Since his appointment, five senior experienced CIA officers have resigned. They include John McLaughlin, the former deputy director, who told the Washington Post last week: "We are in a period when intelligence is being used as a weapon - but more against ourselves than our enemies."
The problem is compounded in Washington by bitter infighting. A proposal by Bush, a newly re-elected president, to create a new overarching post of national intelligence director has been sabotaged in Congress, mainly because of opposition from a jealous Pentagon - headed by the stubborn defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld - which does not want to lose the control it enjoys over most of America's £21bn intelligence budget.
British agencies, notably MI6, are observing the goings-on in Washington with deep concern. Confusion at the top of America's intelligence-gathering - and, perhaps more important, intelligence-assessing - apparatus further threatens attempts at a coordinated and sensible response to the terrorist threat.
So far, Britain's security and intelligence agencies have avoided such corrosive turf wars. John Scarlett, promoted by Tony Blair to head MI6, though he admitted responsibility for the misleading Iraq weapons dossier when he chaired the joint intelligence committee, is keeping his head down. The appointment of Sir Stephen Lander, a former head of MI5, as chairman of the new Serious Organised Crime Agency, Soca, should help to ensure such turf wars won't happen here.
More worrying is the lack of any indication that ministers have taken on board the damage already done to the intelligence agencies here as a result of the Iraq dossier. Blair seems as obsessed, and uncritically impressed, by secret intelligence reports as ever.
In a new book, Spinning the Spies, published by the social affairs unit, Anthony Glees and Philip Davies write that the bottom line "is not that the intelligence community as such was at fault. It is rather that the Blair administration placed the professionals of the intelligence community in an untenable position by requiring them to act as advocates rather than analysts".
When intelligence agencies become public bodies, they say, they become politicised bodies. But you can't put the genie back in the bottle. Blair and his ministers will continue to cite intelligence when it suits them. As a start, parliament's intelligence and security committee should now closely monitor ministerial use and abuse of intelligence, as well as the activities of the agencies themselves.
Blunkett suggests the terrorist threat is so serious that there is no alternative but to abandon long-established principles of law. "Al-Qaida and the international network is seen to be, and will be demonstrated through the courts over months to come, actually on our doorstep and threatening our lives," he said recently. "I am talking about people who are about to go through the court system. They may not be found guilty."
Ministers, he said, were trying "to square an impossible circle" by attempting to adapt the legal system to protect Britain against new threats without eroding basic human rights. The implication is that ministers have no alternative but to do just that, and go down the road of the US, including condoning torture. This is hardly likely to help in the "war on terror".
· Richard Norton-Taylor is the Guardian's security affairs editor