Crying Wolf?

The Mail on Sunday has led with a front page exclusive story that claims that MI5 is overwhelmed with work and desperately needs more officers and more money.

This is ridiculous. They already have far more money and staff than ever before. Are there really more threats now than when MI5 faced Irish terrorism and, simultaneously, the threat of the Soviet Union and all its associated intelligence services, plus animal rights activists and far-right terror groups? Of course not.

So why call for more money now? The first clue is that MI5 made this claim to the Mail on Sunday rather than as a general press release to all the Sunday newspapers. Although it is well known that the intelligence services often use such titles as the Times and the Telegraph to get stories out into the public domain, the correspondents of those newspapers often remain sceptical of some of the stories they are asked to print. The Mail group on other hand is often seen as the newspaper of the old Empire and of the Conservative right-wing. It is suits the newspaper to print stories about the nobility of Britain’s armed forces and the way that they are being starved of cash. That includes the intelligence services. Many of the individuals concerned dine at the same private London clubs. In going to the Mail, MI5 knew that their story would be heard by sympathetic ears.

So if there isn’t a real need for money (except in the sense that everyone, everywhere would always like more money) what is really going on? Upon closer examination, it is more likely that the story has far more to do with the current inquiry into the London Bridge terror attacks than a real need for cash. Earlier this week, counsel for the victims at the inquiry had pointed out that there were numerous chances for the security services to stop these attacks, but chance after chance had been missed. This is not unusual at inquiries after UK terrorist incidents: for instance, the inquiry after the 7/7 bombings made similar criticisms. Over the years MI5 has developed a tried and tested response to such criticisms.

Their standard line is to claim that they could have stopped the attacks if only they had more money and more officers. In fact there is not a single successful terrorist attack or wave of attacks that has NOT resulted in more money for the intelligence services. In a strange way, it is actually good for the UK intelligence services when a terrorist attack succeeds because they are guaranteed to get more money! If you think about it, this is only logical: what government would cut funding to security when a terrorist attack has just succeeded? The agencies all know this and use it. The only time that service funding has been cut was in the early nineteen nineties when the Soviet Union had just collapsed and the threat from the Soviet and Eastern European intelligence services had all but disappeared.

The truth is that the Security Service is hugely bureaucratic and inefficient. Unlike almost every other government department in the UK it is not subject to rigorous oversight and therefore there is no chance for more efficient use of resources. The reason for this lack of scrutiny is always cited as “security”, even though there could be efficient oversight without security being affected. The only oversight body is the Intelligence and Security Committee which is staffed by MPs, most of whom do not have a clue how the intelligence services work and no incentive at all to ask difficult questions.

If MI5 were really subject to the same sort of efficiency checks as other government departments there could be massive savings rather than increased funding. As has been said in these pages before, there is actually no need for a separate police and security service structure in 21st Century Britain. There is nothing that MI5 does that the police do not already do – and often better. MI5 does not need more money, what they need is a thorough examination of their operating procedures. The fact that they can spend so much time putting out self-serving propaganda stories across the front page of Sunday newspapers rather proves the point. Do not believe everything you read.

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