The disastrous HQ of Britain's secret service

The government is persisting in its efforts to pass the so-called Justice and Security Bill. Through the introduction of secret judicial processes, it would permit the cover-up of illegal activity by the State. The attempt should be abandoned.

When I worked on the City pages of The Daily Telegraph a quarter of a century ago, we young reporters were advised by Christopher Fildes, the paper’s legendary financial columnist, to take note of three corporate sell signals.

The first concerned the chief executive. If he purchased a string of racehorses, it meant that he wasn’t concentrating on the job and had got ideas above his station. The second was the appearance of a fountain in the head office foyer, a sure indication of extravagance and frivolity. Finally, Mr Fildes urged us to view with distrust all companies that shifted to a lavish new headquarters. Too often for comfort, he asserted, such a move presaged disaster.

When I moved to cover politics, I soon realised that the same rule applied in the public sector. The textbook case concerns the Home Office, which notoriously descended into a dysfunctional shambles after it moved from its headquarters in Queen Anne’s Gate to gleaming new offices in Marsham Street eight years ago. Likewise, the government Whips Office lost all purpose after being shifted from its historic 12 Downing Street base.

Something went wrong with the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) shortly after it moved into its hideous new HQ, whose rear end overlooks the Thames with the same elegance and charm as the stern of an expensive cruise liner. I am not talking about the operational errors, of which one of the most recent has been the failure to grasp, despite warning signals, the role played by al-Qaeda in the Syrian uprising until too late. Far more troubling have been the structural problems that emerged after the existence of SIS was formally acknowledged in 1994 – by curious coincidence the same year as the building in Vauxhall was opened.

The first of these has been the propinquity between the intelligence and political establishments, a normal state of affairs in authoritarian states but always very troubling in democracies. This became manifest after 1997 under New Labour, when for a time SIS and the Blairite machine in effect merged. New Labour spin doctors travelled to Vauxhall to brief intelligence chiefs on how to conduct their public relations. Meanwhile, SIS shockingly tolerated New Labour’s use of secret intelligence as political propaganda.

This process reached its apotheosis in the notorious Iraq dossier of September 2002. Ten years have passed since the start of that catastrophic conflict and still questions remain to be answered. The Chilcot Inquiry, which was supposed to answer them (then again, perhaps it wasn’t) appears to have sunk without trace.

The second problem involves British complicity in torture. Like the repudiation of traditional intelligence methods that led to the Iraq fiasco, this had its origins in the merger between the security elite and the political class after 1997.

Bear in mind that Margaret Thatcher, when prime minister, had refused to countenance the use of evidence gathered under torture. This doctrine was turned on its head by Tony Blair’s government. After 9/11, though under pressure from the United States, British intelligence officers (from both SIS and the domestic intelligence agency MI5) were still barred from carrying it out themselves. But a new convention permitted them to seek evidence gathered under torture.

In particular, Britain became heavily complicit in what is known as extraordinary rendition, or the kidnap and subsequent torture of individuals as a matter of state policy. It goes without saying that this activity is against the law, and wholly contrary to our international obligations as a signatory of the United Nations Convention against torture.

Reports of British involvement leaked out at an early stage, but for a very long time were denied by ministers. Foreign secretary Jack Straw exploded in indignation when Britain was accused in 2005 of being party to the CIA extraordinary rendition programme: “Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States, and also, let me say, we believe that Secretary Rice is lying, there is simply no truth that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition, full stop.”

Mr Straw has since gone quiet in the face of a mass of overwhelming evidence. This silence brings me on to the Justice and Security Bill, whose committee stage will today be debated in the Commons. A superbly researched Centre for Policy Studies pamphlet Neither Just nor Secure, by Anthony Peto QC of Blackstone Chambers and the Conservative backbencher Andrew Tyrie, argues that the Bill may stop the truth ever emerging about British involvement in torture. It enables government secretly to present evidence in civil cases, without allowing the other party or his or her lawyers to see it. The other party can never even know, let alone challenge, the evidence presented against him. A judge will decide whether the evidence should be heard in open court.

Second, the Bill blocks the courts from using the information-gathering legal principle known as Norwich Pharmacal. “This would make it harder,” argue the authors, “to uncover official wrongdoing in matters such as extraordinary rendition.”

Third, the authors demonstrate that the mechanisms set up by John Major in the Intelligence Services Act of 1994 to make the security services accountable have failed. Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee is beyond incompetent. It is supposed to oversee the security services. In 2007, the hapless ISC found no evidence of complicity in any extraordinary rendition operations in a notorious report from which, it has now emerged, 42 vital documents had been withheld. The Gibson Inquiry into rendition, set up by David Cameron in 2010, was just as useless and has now been abandoned.

Successive ISC chairmen (the former foreign office minister Kim Howells has been the worst) have been bossed around by government, and shown a feeble-minded naivety. “In recent years,” the authors note, “a string of appointees have come out of Government to chair the Committee only to return to the front bench afterwards.” Nothing in the Justice and Security Bill remedies this toothlessness.

John le Carré once wrote that “the only real measure of a nation’s political health” is the state of its intelligence services. For much of the last century (as readers of Mr le Carré’s novels can surmise) they have manifested a distinctive British integrity, ruthlessness, tolerance, eccentricity, and breathtaking heroism when required.

But, if Mr le Carré is right, something must have gone wrong with 21st-century Britain. Few sensible people would deny that we need effective security services, nor that the great majority of people who work for them are highly capable and patriotic, condemned by the nature of their work to stay quiet about their achievements and the bravery of what they do.

But the best intelligence officers admit that British complicity in torture has amounted to a thoroughgoing betrayal of our values, acted as a recruiting sergeant for terrorism, and made intelligence gathering more difficult. Deepening the secret state is a step in the wrong direction. The objective of any decent government should be to expose as much of the truth as we can about British involvement in torture, not to hush it up. It’s time for the Coalition to ditch its shameful little Bill.

With thanks to the Daily Telegraph where this originally appeared. See also Anthony Barnett and David Davis MP 'The Coming Dictatorship of Britain' in Our Kingdom before the Bill went to the Lords.

About the author

Peter Oborne is the chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph and reports for Channel 4's Dispatches and Unreported World. He has written a number of books identifying the power structures that lurk behind political discourse, including The Triumph of the Political Class. He is a regular on BBC programmes Any Questions and Question Time and often presents Week in Westminster. He was voted Columnist of the Year at the Press Awards in 2013.