Reds under the bed, spooks coming out of the closet…22 July 2010

The news wires certainly have been full of stories about espionage in the last month. Every time something lends itself to greater attention, something new comes along to trump it. 

So, in rough order:

The Russian spies –

Aside from pictures of the spy formerly known as Anna Chapman in various states of undress – an unlikely cameo in the new James Bond film in the offing? – several things stuck out about this case. The first was just how disorganised an effort it was. All the books on Cold War spying suggest that such groups would have never been in direct contact with each other; nor would they have been so loose with their communications to their handlers back in Moscow. Whinges about who owned their respective houses would have never occurred for fear of revelation; so the impunity that these agents felt is either indicative of sloppy thinking or that counterintelligence is no longer as effective as it once was. Then came the extraordinary exchange of spies (10 back to Russia, and four from Russia to the US) at Vienna airport; a sign, perhaps, of the red-handed capture of the Russian officers, but also of the desire to maintain the thawing relations between the two sides.

There have been semi-official noises for the last five years in the UK about the state of foreign agent infiltration here; counterintelligence efforts having been replaced by the overwhelming focus on Islamist terrorism. This has allowed – so it goes – Russian and Chinese agents/officers to operate unmolested within our shores. This is something that requires attention, clearly. I would maintain, as per my previous post that further attention is required on the influence, influence through investments and voice opportunities being granted to these outside powers. More particularly, some critical thought needs to be given to the work of people like Anthony Glees who has written of the problems faced by unfriendly infiltration of British universities – particularly, I would add, universities who have military or dual-use specialisms.

The Chilcot Inquiry

Dame Manningham-Buller provided damning evidence to the Chilcot inquiry about the advice she and her former service – MI5 – had provided to the government in the lead-up to the Iraq war. She testified that MI5 had warned that the Iraq war would increase the threat from terrorists to the UK, and that Iraq had previously had no involvement with terrorism. She took a swipe at the foreign intelligence agency – SIS – saying they had over-promised on Iraq, and she presumably had in her mind all the extra work her service had to do to try and close the gap between their knowledge and the rapidly emerging threats following the invasion.

What really came out of her evidence, and in the tone she delivered it, was a sense that the way that the government had reached its decisions had been injudicious. The rise and rise of the ‘special advisor’; those fresh from university and the party machines with no specialist knowledge at all, added to the policy mix and the failure to adequately account for the law of unintended consequences.

Intelligence agencies do have to be accountable to the government and to Parliament, and so the civilian control of intelligence is desirable, but the opposite end of this spectrum; the ability to use flaky or non-existent intelligence to justify what the Deputy PM (Nick Clegg) has described as an illegal war is equally grotesque. Speaking truth to power is the raison d’etre of all intelligence agencies; to move away from this central goal is to reduce the agencies to some kind of secret policing service. As KoW readers will know, I have a particular interest in how policy is created in policy elites; what concerns me is that ‘sofa government’ allowed far too much leverage for the PM and his close cohort to override not only established government procedure, but also good or commonsense, worrying in the light of the magnitude of the decision and the cost to the British taxpayer. I hope the relationship between intelligence mandarins, product and politicians has been worked through with the current government.

Top Secret America

Dana Priest (who must surely have done more than anyone else in the last ten years to inform the public about the American and parts of the European intelligence community) and her team have published an enormous quantity of research on the Washington Post website called ‘Top Secret America’. This project reveals the hidden wiring of the secret American state (as a footnote, how does this square – as with the UK too – with the rolling back of the frontiers of the state?) and how a system akin to the military-industrial-complex has grown up and mainstreamed itself through America’s elites and ordinary citizenry.

Three of the Post’s conclusions were:  “Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.
* An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.
* In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings – about 17 million square feet of space.”

It’s the numbers of people with high-level clearances and the number of companies involved in providing private intelligence services that are surprising, if not staggering. Priest and Arkin clearly wishes to give the impression of a country over-run by a surveillance parallel state; but they are clear – and I’m pleased they have this view – that this isn’t a deliberate attempt to hijack a state, it is the unintended consequence of a myriad of Congressional decisions, and parts of the intelligence community expanding in response to threats – it is the sum of the weight of bureaucratic developments. And whilst the Americans can rule themselves – it is not for me to suggest to them a way of government – it is something we could probably trace here too; particularly the growth of information analysis, and the gentle spread of intelligence functions into the private sphere, oh, and the growth of these functions within the European Union too (see the recent decision to agree on SWIFT, after several refusals). The central point should be that we are absolutely sure of what we are seeking to protect and that every growth spurt of this secret part of the state is done in order to secure the protection of a defined goal; at the moment it appears that the machine has expansion built into its DNA – Pierson called it functionalist creep. He could, and maybe should, reprise this work.

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