Changing of the guard

Andrew Parker, outgoing Director-General of the UK’s MI5, has been giving interviews to carefully selected media contacts as he prepares to leave his post this month. Asked what he thought was the greatest change he has seen during his time at the service, he replied that it was the recruitment of a gay and ethnically diverse workforce. When he joined, it was a matter for dismissal if an officer was found to be gay. Now, the gay rights group Stonewall has recognised the service as a gay-friendly employer and there are more than just white faces to be seen lurking in the corridors and cubicles of Thames House.

Parker also recounted the various successes of the service against the Muslim extremist threat. What was interesting was what he did not say. He did not mention the several successful assassination attempts by members of the Russian GRU during his time in office. Similarly he did not mention that the Salisbury attack against the Skripals showed that the Russians can still get operatives into and out of the country successfully. Although the Salisbury attack was not successful and in truth, rather amateurishly planned, a string of other suspicious deaths have indicated that the Russians have been successful elsewhere. This is despite the clumsiness of their methods. With such a cack-handed enemy, it would have been interesting to hear Parker’s thoughts on why MI5 has been unable to contribute to even one arrest of these assassination teams.

Parker will be succeeded by Ken McCallum who is known in security circles as “the spy with the wonky eyes”. McCallum enters the post under somewhat of a shadow. Under Parker, he was in charge of the MI5 investigation into the Skripal attack. But the open source investigation team at the website Bellingcat were able to publicly identify the perpetrators faster than Security Service. It made MI5 look slow at a time when the attack, although not successful, also made it look as if Britain could not protect its defectors. This is almost exactly what Putin had hoped for.

One of the reasons McCallum has been selected is because he has a good relationship with GCHQ. The UK’s cyber security organisation is now the major player in the UK’s domestic security apparatus and most leads are generated through their intelligence and their close liaison with the NSA. The UK police are increasingly getting the better part of this intel as they can effect an arrest more quickly than MI5. MI5 has no power of arrest itself and must work through the police if it is to bring a case to a conclusion. This creates unnecessary delay which can be damaging in a fast moving terrorism case. The new head of the service needs to keep relations with the technical agency sweet if MI5 is not to become increasingly sidelined. So far, only its large pool of manpower and its ability to operate in some of the murkier areas of UK legislation, have kept the service in the game.

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