You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Junk Bonds

Among the secret files kept in the 1970s by MI5, Britain’s fabled domestic intelligence agency, was one for a mysterious figure code-named “Henry Worthington.” Henry Worthington was in a position to affect the nation’s fate: He exerted influence on powerful people; he had access to state secrets. Good reasons, one might imagine, why the secret service would take an intrusively close interest in his activities--including, it would later be alleged, extensive surveillance of his every move. There was only one problem: Henry Worthington’s real name was Harold Wilson, and he was the sitting Labour Party prime minister.Exactly how much truth there was in the rumors surrounding MI5 and Wilson has never been established. But for such spying even to be conceivable required a remarkably freewheeling intelligence culture--one in which the surveillance of legitimate politicians and activists, usually of the left, had become routine. All of which is worth bearing in mind now that the 9/11 Commission is considering an MI5-type agency for the United States. The attractions of such an agency are obvious, and not just because of the glamorous James Bond stereotype historically attached to British espionage. There’s much to be said in favor of training a professional cadre of counterterrorism agents, instead of rotating the job among FBI personnel, many of whom do not have counterterrorism backgrounds. “The problem in the U.S. is people who’ve been arresting people for stealing video-recorders are moved out of that, put onto counterterrorism for three years, then moved to something else,” says Professor Richard Aldrich, an expert on intelligence at Nottingham University. “If you talk to people from MI5, they’ll tell you it takes twenty years to develop a first-rate agent-handler.” Unfortunately, MI5 hardly lives up to its 007 reputation. Free from the need to build criminal cases, MI5 has committed as grave, and more recent, violations of privacy as the arrest-oriented FBI. And, even as it has overstepped its bounds, MI5 has compiled an uninspiring record of actually stopping terrorism. Pinning down exactly what goes on inside MI5’s vast and anonymous headquarters on the north bank of the Thames is far from easy. Britain’s Official Secrets Act provides tough punishments for employees who break the code of silence. But, in recent years, several former MI5 officers have spoken to the press, and it’s now widely accepted that the agency spent much of the ‘70s and ‘80s developing files on hundreds of thousands of Britons and targeting figures it deemed--according to an exceedingly loose definition of the term--”subversive.” They included not only the former prime minister, but also Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt, who were prominent in the National Council on Civil Liberties, Britain’s version of the American Civil Liberties Union. Both of these women went on to hold important positions in Tony Blair’s government. In 1997, David Shayler, a former MI5 officer, alleged that the agency had spied on others who eventually became senior Blair Cabinet members, including party strategist Peter Mandelson and Jack Straw, now foreign secretary. MI5 also seems to have been transfixed, to the point of obsession, by the activities of the left-wing Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which was prominent during the ‘80s. “We all knew that phones were tapped and the mail interfered with,” Bruce Kent, CND’s former chairman, wrote some years afterward. “What we did not know was that MI5 had actually planted an informant in our office posing as a volunteer.” In a 2001 memoir, Stella Rimington--who presided over the MI5’s “countersubversion” activities at the time--conceded that her agents had taken their campaign against CND too far. MI5 had infiltrated CND, she admitted, describing the spy agency as “overenthusiastic” in its pursuit of supposed subversives. “Files were opened on people who were not actively threatening the state,” she added. MI5’s abuses can often be worse than the FBI’s for a simple reason: It has nothing to restrain it. David Cole, an expert on intelligence and civil liberties at Georgetown University, says, “If one operates within a purely intelligence paradigm”--i.e., without any need to focus on suspected crimes-- “there are very few constraints on the government collecting whole troves of data on innocent political dissidents ... without the faintest connection to any kind of criminal law enforcement.” Indeed, former MI5 officials say the surveillance of Harman and Hewitt was so intensive because MI5 did not have to obtain information in a way that would allow a criminal prosecution. By contrast, the FBI must always keep in mind that, if it oversteps citizens’ civil liberties, it may be unable to introduce evidence it collects in court. Security experts agree. Andrew Puddephat, an expert on intelligence and civil liberties in Britain, says there is no concrete way to prevent MI5 agents from pursuing any pet project they want, for any reason. Though, in the ‘80s, the British government produced some guidelines on how MI5 should operate, they were very vague. For example, the guidelines allowed the organization to disregard them in case of a “strike” against Britain but never defined what constituted a “strike.” Worse, MI5 doesn’t even demonstrate that, if you’re willing to tolerate abuse, you’ll get a devastatingly effective counterterrorist outfit in exchange. In fact, MI5 has hardly been more competent than the CIA or the FBI in combating dangers to national security. Like the U.S. agencies, MI5 had some successes in cold war operations against the Soviet Union. In fighting terrorism, however, MI5 has not proved as effective. Former MI5 officer Shayler has alleged that, in 1993, the organization possessed information that could have prevented the massive bomb detonated that year by the Irish Republican Army in the heart of London’s financial district. Unfortunately, the information never made it to the top of MI5 and was not acted upon. Similarly, Shayler says, the agency failed to act on an advance warning about the bomb that exploded outside the Israeli Embassy in London in 1994. More recently, though MI5 reportedly knew of shoe-bomber Richard Reid’s links to September 11 suspect Zacarias Moussaoui well in advance, it failed to prevent Reid, a British citizen, from boarding a plane and attempting to detonate explosives on board. In fact, the London Observer has reported that MI5 had been actively monitoring calls between Reid and Moussaoui--calls that revealed Reid’s links to Al Qaeda. Yet, MI5 agents who heard the telephone conversations apparently failed to pass the incriminating information on to superiors, and Reid was not arrested until after his attempted terrorist attack. The Reid bungling should give supporters of a U.S. MI5 pause. Transplanting the MI5 model from the banks of the Thames to the banks of the Potomac may seem attractive at first glance. But, the way it looks from London, our own intelligence model may be even worse than yours.