Last night’s screening by ITV of Inside MI5: The Real Spooks, could easily be dismissed on the grounds that: “Well, the secret intelligence agencies are hardly likely to tell the truth about themselves.” But in taking this approach you could throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Ever since “5”, as insiders call it, decided to allow historian Christopher Andrew to view its archives and to publish his book The Defence of the Realm: the authorised history of MI5, a few chinks of light have appeared which give glimpses – as in a mirror darkly - of how those paid to spy on us go about their tasks.
Sir Stephen Lander, MI5 director between 1996 and 2002, admitted that the security service has grown considerably since its formation, employing 3,800 people. Of course, MI5 is only one part of the spider-like network of secret agencies which cost the taxpayer around £1.6 billion per year. Lander was quick to dismiss the wildly successful TV series Spooks for portraying MI5 as six people and a chief.
There was a convenient focus on the distant past. But evidently the agencies are still haunted by the Cambridge group of spies which ran rings around British intelligence during World War II and the Cold War. Probably the worst fallout from this episode was that Blunt, Burgess, Maclean, Philby and Cairncross served their Soviet masters from conviction and not for personal gain.
Lander claimed that he wanted to correct “a lot of unjust criticism” that MI5 had suffered. He and Andrew were insistent that accusations it had plotted against former Prime Minister Harold Wilson were untrue and painted Wilson as obsessively paranoid. Clearly the agency was shaken by the large body of evidence which has demonstrated that the Wilson Labour government was seriously destabilised by the intelligence agencies. Former MI5 officer, Peter Wright, whose book Spycatcher was banned by the Thatcher government, also came in for a lot of flack for writing about the plot against Wilson.
But when it came to MI5’s role in the execution of Provisional IRA members Danny McCann, Sean Savage and Mairéad Farrell in 1988 it was crystal clear that three unarmed people had been shot in cold blood with no warning. This shocking incident came to light through Death on the Rock, despite the Thatcher governments furious attempts to prevent it from being broadcast.
MI5 involvement in the following, more recent events, didn’t rate a mention:
• surveillance of National Union of Mineworkers’ leader Arthur Scargill during the 1984-1985 miners’ strike (though the smearing of union leader Jack Jones as a Soviet agent featured prominently)
• the 1984 case of MI5 officer Michael Bettany, who was convicted of acting as an agent for the Soviet Union. Bettany was sentenced to 23 years in jail of which he served 15
• the 1996 case of MI5 officer David Shayler, who accused MI6 of being involved in an assassination plot against Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi and spent time in prison after being charged under the Official Secrets Act
• the operation of agents inside legal left-wing political organisations, the anti-war movement and ecological campaigns.
These issues remain too close and too sensitive for comfort. But far from ignoring the strange spectacle of these agencies becoming “transparent” we should keep on peering inside the weird world that they inhabit. Because as surely as night follows day, the “defence of the realm” amounts to the protection of the capitalist political and economic system by whatever means deemed necessary. As the economic, financial and ecological crises come together in a way that threatens the stability of capitalism, you can be sure that MI5 agents are hard at work on “solutions” that don’t have our wellbeing top of the agenda.
A World to Win secretary