The annual Intelligence and Security Committee Report, does its usual job of providing only the vaguest details about the running of the United Kingdom's intelligence agencies and security services. Neither the public, nor the intelligence agencies themselves are best served by so much secrecy and failure to get the answers to probing questions.
They give the impression that important questions of policy, which would not compromise tactical or operational secrets are not even asked, let alone answered.
Combined with the dubious media spins and leaks, is it any wonder that conspiracy theories thrive, and that few members of the public , especially those in, say the Islamic or Irish or the online communities, have any confidence that the intelligence services are doing a competent job, for the public good.
A few points which caught our attention:
- The ISC did manage to mention the "Wilson Doctrine", but, shamefully they appear not to have even bothered to ask the simple questions about whether it applies to technologies like mobile phones, to the internet or to elected institutions such as the European Parliament or the Scottish Parliament etc. which did not exist back in 1966, when the "Wilson Doctrine" was promulgated. See our Wilson Doctrine category archive
- The various intelligence agencies appear to be getting more funding, more staff and are running out office space.
- GCHQ's new Doughnut Building was already full last year.
- The Secret Service MI5 seems set to run out of office space at Thames House on Millbank by October 2006, even though they are also transferring some people "oop North" to the new Northern Operations Centre (Manchester has been mentioned in the press) and other regional offices.
- A new MI5 headquarters building in Northern Ireland partly financed by the Northern Ireland Office seems to be set to be built, since MI5 have taken over the anti-terrorism role in the Prrovince.
- MI6 the Secret Intelligence Service seems to be rebuilding its training facility.
- The Open Source Joint Working Group seems to be liasing with MI5, so perhaps they are actually bothering to read this blog !
- Funding for BBC Monitoring at Caversham, seems to have been found forom somewhere.
- Official Secrets Act common law defence of 'duress of circumstance'
Official Secrets Act
113. The Home Office has bid for a legislative slot in the next session to amend the Official Secrets Act 1989. (At the time of publication it was still awaiting confirmation of its place in the timetable.) The Home Office has informed the Committee that, in its view, the proposed Bill should remove the common law defence of 'duress of circumstance' in order to address unauthorised disclosure by members, or former members, of the intelligence and security Agencies. The Bill should also put an element of the associated 'authorisation to disclose' procedure onto a statutory footing and increase penalties. This proposal has yet to receive policy clearance across Whitehall.
114. We have offered to comment on any draft legislation prior to its introduction - the Home Secretary has accepted our offer. The Committee has not yet seen any draft Bill nor been told who has been consulted in drawing up any new proposals.
Does putting the 'authorisation to disclose' procedure onto a statutory footing mean that there will be a reduction in the number of unofficial briefings to favoured journalists ?
Whistleblowers in the Secret Service MI5, the Secret Intelligence Service MI6 and the Government Communications Headquarters GCHQ, are already excluded from protection via the not Public Interest Disclosure Act section 11 National security
It will be critical to see if the proposed Home Office plans to tinker with the Official Secrets Act really does only apply to such intelligence agency employees, or if, in the usual "lets grab infinite powers because Members of Parliament are too stupid to read the fine print" attitude, they will try to remove this statutory defence for all Government employees and civil servants and contractors or consultants.
What will this do to the lucrative book deals which former senior civil servants, NuLabour special political advisors and Ministers seem to get away with ?
- The Secret Intelligence Service MI6 recruitment website, is mentioned.
We have had a lot of comments from wannabes on our blog posting about this.
53. The last year has seen significant changes in the way SIS recruits staff into all areas of the organisation. The launch of the Service's website marked a departure from the disguised recruitment of previous years. In its first few months, the website has significantly increased the number of applications to join the Service. These changes were complemented in May 2006 by the launch of overt advertising in the national media via an external recruitment agency. SIS expects the website and the recruitment strategy to evolve further over the next year, enabling the Service to cope with the unprecedented levels of interest it is now experiencing and to meet its recruitment targets.
The ISC report also mentions the question of UK nationality and recruitment. wondering why it has to be the relevant Minister e.g. the Home Secretary or the Foreign Secretary who rubberstamps the recruitment of foreign nationals who have not lived in the UK for more than 10 years, rather than the heads of the agencies.
- The Secret Service MI5 has some new software to play with.
provide the Service with new IT tools to process large amounts of information to support investigations. The Committee has seen a demonstration of this new software.
Is this similar to the tools which the Police already use for major enquiries like HOLMES 2 (Home Office Large Major Enquiry System), or is it something else ?
- The Secret Service MI5 appears to have made another Government IT Project cockup:
44. In its 2004-2005 Annual Report, the Committee gave an account of the Service's work to renew its IT infrastructure. The upgrade was due to be completed in 2004 at a cost of around £***. In 2004/05, the original requirement for an electronic document and records management system was judged to be too ambitious and not deliverable within the budget and timescale agreed with HM Treasury. The Service has now redefined the project to focus only on upgrading the core desktop and messaging system. This simplified project, which has been agreed with HM Treasury, is due for delivery in summer 2006 with a total cost expected to be around £***.
The Committee considers the redirection of this work a sensible step, although in future the scope of any major project should be more clearly thought through at the outset.
How can this redefinition and simplification of too ambitious a project be described as anything other than Yet Another Government IT Project Disaster ?
- Assessment Base boxes
systematically included in the JIC 'Assessments Base' box and in Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) papers. This was to avoid the over-simplification of the UK threat picture and the potential for giving inappropriate reassurance about threats. We have been told that 'Assessment Base' boxes have been included on JIC papers to explain the limitations of intelligence to the reader.Where appropriate, the Security Service, DIS and JTAC have also included similar boxes in their intelligence assessments.
Is this any different from the 5x5 Intelligence Report form system which the Police use to give a rating on how trustworthy the information and/or the informant is likely to be ?
- SCOPE seems to have been further delayed !
82. SCOPE is a major IT programme designed to enable organisations across the intelligence community to improve fundamentally the way they work together, by transferring data electronically in a secure and timely manner. SCOPE has ten departmental and Agency partners who contribute to its costs and share oversight of its development
The programme is directed and managed by the Cabinet Office,
while support services will be provided from two locations outside London.
39 The partners are: the three intelligence and security Agencies, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Ministry of
Defence (MOD), the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the
Department for Trade and Industry (DTI), the Home Office, and the Cabinet Office.
83. SCOPE has been several years in development and in previous reports this Committee has highlighted problems in terms of deadline slippage. In its 2004-2005 Annual Report the Committee stated that SCOPE: "has yet to deliver any usable benefits to the UK intelligence community as a whole."
Since then we have seen evidence that some benefits have been achieved, although there is clearly still a long
way to go.
84. We have taken further evidence on SCOPE this year. Roll-out of equipment to 12 locations (Phase I) is now planned for autumn 2006, with the aim of achieving full operational capability before the end of the year. This has slipped from its original date of April 2005. The delay was largely due to technical modifications needed to ensure the effective integration of SCOPE with the networks that GCHQ provides for the benefit of the community, and also due to supplier-related quality assurance problems.
This looks like Yet Another Government IT Project Disaster.
- Defence HUMINT Unit
18. In its 2004-2005 Annual Report, the Committee noted that DIS was beginning to expand its human intelligence (HUMINT) collection capability and its handling of imagery data through the introduction of new technology. Since then, the development of the Defence HUMINT Unit has set a standard for this work that we have been told is highly regarded by partner nations.
This still does not answer the questions which sprang to mind when the Special Reconnaissance Regiment and the Special Forces Support Group were announced.
How exactly are these military surveillance troops, who have been given a Counter-terrorism role, authorised to operate within the United Kingdom ?
Do they sidestep the supposed safeguards regarding Intrusive or Directed Surveillance or the handling of Covert Human Informants, which are supposedly audited by the Surveillance Commissioners established under Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 ?
Remember that at least one of the surveillance team who were involved in the tragic shooting of the innocent Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes last July, was , apparently a soldier, according to the leaked yet still secret reports.
There is still no clear definition of "economic wellbeing of the United Kingdom", a phrase which various bits of legislation uses to grant powers to the intelligence agencies and others.
- Terrorist finance
111. We also took evidence from HMRC on its work with the Agencies. HMRC contributes to work on countering terrorist financing and is part of the group announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in February 2006 to work with industry and the banking sector on this issue
Given the misleading figures on terrorist finance which the Chancellor used in his speech to the Royal United Services Institute in February, and the recent revelations about the US Government's monitoring of all SWIFT financial network transactions for a period, i.e. including innocent UK ones, the ISC should really be investigating this scandal more fully.