After the rock, a much harder place

By Magnus Linklater (THE TIMES, 25/01/06):

WHAT A BRILLIANT idea, our men in Moscow must have thought, to have an electronic dead letter drop hidden in a hollowed-out stone. No more hassle about letters left at midnight in some incriminating tree or fishing around for those tiresome microdots. It’s a pity, of course, that the technology let them down, but then it always does, doesn’t it? Having to kick the stone to make it work, then pick it up and take it back to the lab for tests,rather undermined the hands-off approach. I can just hear the familiar comment that has served MI6 so well down the years: “Don’t worry, we’ll get it right next time.”

The digital stone is only the latest in a series of espionage disasters, like digging tunnels under the Russian Embassy and tapping into the gents’ toilets, which is what they did in the 1980s, or recruiting agents in Estonia just when the Prime Minister was attempting to cement relations with Moscow, or indulging in the absurdities of the Spycatcher era, when the agent Peter Wright and his pals “bugged and burgled our way across London at the State’s behest, while pompous bowler-hatted civil servants pretended to look the other way”. Are there not better ways of gathering intelligence than the dog-eared conventions of planting bugs and tapping phones? It may help MI6 to pick up the latest Russian secret service gossip. It does little to help them to understand what is going on in the country itself.

The internet and a decent contacts book will always outweigh any gains to be made from infiltrating the opposition. As one former KGB chief put it: “I can get more information about America by taking out a subscription to The New York Times than by infiltrating any number of moles into the National Security Agency.”

That is not to say that gathering intelligence on Russia has become irrelevant. On the contrary, it has rarely been more important. As events inside the former Soviet Union have grown more volatile, so the stakes for the rest of us have become higher. When Russia cut off its supply of gas to the Ukraine, its action sent shivers across the Western world, and had energy analysts reaching for their contacts. Why was Gazprom, the powerful gas company, willing to endanger its commercial relations with its Western customers? Why did the Kremlin back such strong-arm tactics? Who benefits?

All these, and more, are legitimate questions. I would wager, however, that I have got closer to answering them by perusing the contents of a specialist newsletter like the excellent Edinburgh-based FSU Oil & Gas Monitor (not the sexiest of titles, but a mine of information) than MI6 managed to extract from its electronic rock.

The reason that intelligence agencies rarely come up with information that is of any real use (like predicting the 9/11 or 7/7 attacks, locating Osama bin Laden or analysing Iran’s nuclear intentions) is that they are so wrapped up in the arcane paraphernalia of espionage that they have forgotten what it is to be halfway decent reporters.

It is high time that our security services were held properly accountable for the huge investment we make in them. Instead of arguing that espionage has been rendered pointless now that the Cold War is over, we should instead be insisting that MI5 and MI6 join the 21st century and behave like any other £1.6 billion a year industry. The absurd conventions that prevent senior intelligence officers being questioned in public, that insist that there can be no scrutiny of their budget or explanation of their sphere of operations, has been blown apart by the revelations of the Hutton and Butler reports on the Iraq war.

What those reports revealed was that the head of MI6 can indeed be cross-questioned in public without the entire edifice of national security tumbling down. They advanced the revolutionary idea that intelligence is not, after all, forbidden territory — the one area of government operation permanently protected from public exposure. They proved that, if public trust is to be satisfied, then hiding behind quaint conventions and half-understood acronyms is not the way to do it.

We are out of step with countries such as the United States, where the head of the CIA can be, and is, cross-examined by a congressional committee. In Canada the Solicitor General presents Parliament with an annual report on the activities of the security services, allowing a full-scale debate on what they have achieved. In Britain, on the contrary, disclosure is kept to a minimum, restricted to the Intelligence and Security Committee, which protects its secrets more jealously than the agencies themselves. This is the body to which Tony Blair entrusted an inquiry into Iraqi intelligence; this is not, therefore, a body that has conspicuously won over the trust and confidence of the British people.

The hypocrisy of the present position has been exposed in many ways: by the intelligence services, who have bent the rules themselves with selective leaks, by the former intelligence chief, who publishes her memoirs, but insists that her organisation cannot be held to account, and by a smirking Prime Minister who tells a press conference: “I’m afraid you are going to get the old stock-in-trade: ‘We never comment on security matters’. Except when we want to, obviously.”

I doubt if that position can be long maintained. Unless we have trust in our intelligence organisations, we can have no confidence that they are honestly representing the national interest. The only way of regaining that trust is through more openness, proper accountability and tangible evidence that, out in the real world, they are listening to something rather more worthwhile than a polystyrene rock.