MI5 is in trouble again. Following criticism of their failure to prevent the London Bridge attack (see our article dated 2 June), Lord Justice Fulford, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, has declared that MI5 has, for years, been illegally collecting and retaining data on British citizens. Even more damning, senior MI5 management knew of this illegality three years ago and rather than taking action, they covered up these illegal acts from the public, the Home Office and even from the Prime Minister. These illegalities were only brought to light because of a case brought by the human rights group Liberty that is being heard in the High Court at the present time.
The illegally held information included people’s location data, calls, messages and web browsing history. Even discussions between lawyers and their clients which are supposed to be legally privileged, were spied on by MI5 officers. Lord Justice Fulford said that “MI5 had an historical lack of compliance” with the law. He compared future close oversight of the Security Service to putting them in “special measures” – a term normally applied to failing schools. Despite the severity of this action, lawyers acting for MI5 still refused to explain the lapses citing “possible risks to national security.”
As well as the two cases listed above, it was only in November last year that the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) concluded that MI5 had “moved too slowly” to prevent the Manchester Arena bombing of 2017 even though they were in possession of intelligence which should have flagged the attacker as a high risk.
The inefficiency and complacency of the senior management of MI5 is well known. Of course, there are some very good officers working for the Service, most notably in the surveillance sections, but the Service has always suffered from one crucial problem: it is not a front line service. This means that intelligence collected by the police has to be fed in to MI5 offices and when they decide that action must be taken they have to refer back to the police again because MI5 officers have no power of arrest. According to the ISC, it was exactly this sort of wasteful bureaucracy that led to the Manchester Arena bombing delay.
This disconnection from active policing causes another problem. Although MI5 has been given massive rises in funding and staffing levels, a great many of these posts are in data processing. As is well known, much of the problem with modern espionage is not gathering the intelligence – thanks to modern communications interception there is plenty of that – rather it is sifting that mass of information to find out what is most important. MI5 has a high churn rate (that is the rate of people leaving within a few years of joining. Some estimates say that it is as high as 27%). One of the reasons for this is that young people join expecting the world of the TV series “Spooks” only to find that their work is about as exciting as working in a call centre. Because they have no power of arrest, MI5 officers are rarely there for the “kill”. For many of them, they are always at arm’s length from the work. Once the thrill of the secrecy has worn off (although for some it never does), disillusionment sets in.
Once more the case for a radical overhaul of the relationship between the police and MI5 has been highlighted, but it is highly unlikely that any action will be taken. This is despite the fact that it is unusual for the current Commissioner to have been so critical. Most of his predecessors have been seen by critics as toothless “yes-men” who have done little to counter that impression. As has been seen, MI5 will simply hide behind the veil of operational secrecy and security failings are likely to occur again.
The existence of MI5 as a sort of private London club has gone on for far too long.