At present, the efforts of the Security Service are focused principally on Al Qaida-related terrorism which has, of course, emerged as a major threat in the last ten years.
“Globalisation has operated in this area as in many others,” said Evans, “so that our domestic security is now dependent as much on events in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia as it is on those occurring in London, Manchester or, indeed, Bristol.”
Continuing the counter-terror theme, Evans added: “We are investigating the activities of foreign intelligence services in so far as they continue to attack UK interests, an activity that now happens increasingly via the Internet. We also have a continuing role in countering terrorism related to the affairs of Northern Ireland and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”
In the speech written to mark the University of Bristol’s centenary, and entitled 'Defending The Realm', Evans spoke of “close links with the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure” (which advises those responsible for the protection of our Critical National Infrastructure about the threat to their assets and how best they can be protected).
Operation within a liberal democracy
Operating the MI5 Security Service within a liberal democracy does, of course, pose problems and occasionally dilemmas, as Evans was quick to point out.
“A ‘purist’ liberal might argue that there should be no domestic intelligence service separate from law enforcement: within the law the State should not restrict the activities of its citizens,” opined Evans. “Such a doctrine is comforting in its purity, but does not stand up well to the test of reality.”
The MI5’s leader continued: “Any country has legitimate security needs, and the people of this country expect to be able to go about their lives in security, confidence and prosperity. We should all be able to shop with our families, attend sporting events or use public transport without fear.”
There are those in our midst intent on stopping us from doing so. “It’s a responsibility of Government to ensure that those who threaten us cannot succeed in their plans,” explained Evans, in no uncertain terms. “Since those plans are by their very nature a secret, we need a security intelligence service to identify and investigate them. We cannot merely wait until our enemies have acted and then seek to bring them to justice.”
Important as that process is, it does not prevent the actual harm that our enemies and opponents would seek to perpetrate. It’s a truism that some activity threatening to our security, including an element of State espionage activity against us, is not amenable to the criminal law.
Actions cannot be visible to all
“An additional complication,” stated Evans, “is that an intelligence service cannot operate effectively if its actions are visible to all. We need to keep secret from the people we are investigating that we know who they are, and that we are investigating them. If not, they will take measures to avoid our scrutiny. Therefore, full disclosure of the Security Service’s activities to the public gaze would negate the purpose of having a Security Service in the first place.”
Accordingly, all arrangements in place for the oversight of the Security Service (which are very similar to those for the Secret Intelligence Service and GCHQ) depend upon those bodies that provide the oversight operating within the so-called ‘Ring of Secrecy’, so that they can require the Service to account for its actions in some detail without that information becoming available within the public domain.
According to Evans, these ‘oversight’ arrangements comprise five elements.
First, the Security Service works under the authority of the Home Secretary. “Our plans and performance are scrutinised by him, and I speak with the Home Secretary on a regular basis,” said Evans. “Authorisations for the use of intrusive techniques such as telephone interception are required, by statute, to be signed by the Home Secretary. They are not in the Security Service’s gift.”
This statutory framework ensures that the Security Service may only intrude on the privacy of citizens in accordance with law, a principle enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights and reflected in the Human Rights Act itself.
Second, the Service’s use of the intrusive powers authorised under the law is reviewed by two Commissioners, both of whom are retired senior judges appointed, of course, under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.
“They have access to our most sensitive operational activities, and ensure that we are applying the law and that the use of the powers is justified,” explained Evans. “If you’re interested, the reports of the Commissioners are published so you can check that we are sticking to the rules! We certainly put a great deal of effort into doing so.”
Accountability to the Parliamentarians
Third, the Security Service is accountable to the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliamentarians, the members of which operate in rather the same way that a Select Committee oversees the work of a Department of State.
Evans suggests that anyone who doubts the Committee is afforded detailed access to the Service’s activities should spend a couple of hours reading the published version of the Committee’s report entitled: ‘Could 7/7 have been prevented?’
“The operational detail included in the report about the Security Service’s actions in connection with the 7/7 bombings in London is unprecedented. I only wish it had received more coverage.”
Fourth, there’s the Investigatory Powers Tribunal available to members of the public who wish to complain about the Agencies. The Tribunal is independent of Government, and made up of senior members of the legal profession and judiciary.
Finally, the finances of the Security Service are subject to scrutiny by both the Treasury and the National Audit Office.
Balance to be struck between two extremes
“There is a balance to be struck between two extremes,” suggested Evans. “It would be self-defeating to have such onerous and detailed scrutiny that the operational effectiveness and responsiveness of the Security Service were seriously impaired. Equally, accountability must be sufficiently robust to ensure that any inappropriate action on the part of the Service comes to light.”
In Evans’ opinion, the current balance is “about right”. He added: “We are an operationally-focused organisation and need to be able to react with speed, for example when terrorists are plotting an attack. The members of the Service, as much as those outside, support the need for appropriate oversight. We are, after all, ourselves citizens of this country, and the reason that most people join the Service is because they want to do something useful and valuable for our society.”
Evans praised his co-workers. “Members of the Service are conscientious people who think about what they are doing and, as a Service, we encourage discussion and debate of ethical issues as an important part of keeping the culture of the Service healthy.”
As far as Evans is concerned, the long-term effectiveness of the Security Service operating in a democracy depends upon it operating within the ethical values and norms of the society which it serves.
In the media of late
Next, Evans turned to recent media reporting of allegations made by a variety of people that the Security Service has solicited and colluded in the mistreatment of detainees held by other Governments.
“Some have even alleged that we have taken part in or been present during mistreatment,” explained Evans. “Regrettably, I’m not able to comment on these allegations in detail because most of the complainants are taking action against the Service and other Government departments in the civil courts. This precludes full public discussion of the allegations. That said, I would like to make some general points.”
Evans looked at context. “After 9/11, the UK and other western world countries were faced with the fact that the terrorist threat posed by Al Qaida was indiscriminate, global and massive. Now, eight years on, we have a better understanding of the nature and scope of Al Qaida’s capabilities, but we did not have that understanding in the period immediately after 9/11.”
Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the United States, 67 of them British. “We were aware that 9/11 was not the summit of Al Qaida’s ambitions, and that there was a real possibility similar attacks were being planned, potentially on an imminent basis. Our intelligence resources were not adequate to the situation we faced, and the root of the terrorist problem was in parts of the world where the standards and practices of the local security apparatus were very far removed from our own.”
In Evans’ own words, this posed a real dilemma. “Given the pressing need to understand and uncover Al Qaida’s plans, were we to deal, however circumspectly, with those Security Services who had experience of working against At Qaida on their own territory, or were we to refuse to deal with them, accepting that in so doing we would be cutting off a potentially vital source of information that would prevent attacks in the West?”
According to Evans, the Security Service “would have been derelict” in its duty if it had not worked, circumspectly, with overseas liaisons who were in a position to provide intelligence that could safeguard this country from attack.
“I have every confidence in the behaviour of my officers in what were difficult and, at times, dangerous circumstances,” asserted Evans. “This was not just a theoretical issue. Al Qaida had indeed made plans for further attacks after 9/11. Details of some of these plans came to light through the interrogation of detainees by other countries, including the US, in the period after 9/11. Subsequent investigation on the ground, including in the UK, substantiated these claims. Such intelligence was of the utmost importance to the safety and security of the UK. It has saved British lives.”
Operational decisions and how to take them
Evans does not defend the abuses that have recently come to light within the US system since 9/11. “Nor would I dispute the judgement of the Intelligence and Security Committee, in its 2005 report on the handling of detainees and its 2007 report about rendition, that the Service, among others, was slow to detect the emerging pattern of US practice in the period after 9/11.”
He went on to state: “It’s important to recognise that we do not control what other countries do, that operational decisions have to be taken with the knowledge available, even if it is incomplete, and that when the emerging pattern of US policy was detected necessary improvements were made.”
Evans pointed out that: “We should recall that, notwithstanding these serious issues, the UK has gained huge intelligence benefits from our co-operation with the US agencies in recent years, and the US agencies have been generous in sharing intelligence with us.”
Writing earlier this year, Home Secretary Alan Johnson and his Cabinet colleague David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said: “Intelligence from overseas is critical to our success in stopping terrorism. All the most serious plots and attacks in the UK in this decade have had significant links abroad. Our agencies must work with their equivalents overseas... We have to work hard to ensure that we do not collude in torture or mistreatment. Enormous effort goes into assessing the risks in each case, but it’s not possible to eradicate all risk. Judgements need to be made.”
Evans stressed that this is very much the reality of the situation.
Diligent judgement, due accountability
The two principles articulated in the Security Service’s ethical approach are, first, ‘diligent judgement’ – of the sort outlined in the article by the Home and Foreign Secretaries, recognising that MI5 operates in a complex environment where easy answers are not available to it.
Second, there is a need for ‘due accountability’. “We are an accountable public organisation,” opined Evans. “We seek to record decisions made and the actions we have taken, and we provide information as required to oversight bodies such as the Commissioners, the Intelligence and Security Committee and, in particular, to the Courts.”
Disclosure for the Court process can be a very “resource-intensive exercise”, according to Evans, “complicated by the question of how much of the relevant material can safely come into the public sphere through the Courts. These problems can take time to resolve, not because we are seeking to cover anything up but, on the contrary, because the quantity and variety of records and the scale of disclosure exercises, particularly when faced with allegations ranging over a period of years involving dozens of cases and the actions of hundreds of officers, is so enormous.”
The full text of Jonathan Evans' speech, which was given under the title 'Defending The Realm', can be accessed on MI5's official website (a dedicated link is provided on the right hand panel of this page)