SECURITY & INTELLIGENCE SERVICES – 29 March 2001
Dr Julian Lewis: Unlike other Back Benchers who have spoken so far, I am not a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee. I hope to have the indulgence of the House in doing what I usually do, which is to talk primarily about intelligence and security issues rather than the work of the Committee. However, I shall touch on one aspect of the Committee's work before I conclude.
The topics that I wish to address are MI5 and subversion, with reference to some recent and on-going developments; some historical topics relating to the retention of files and the examination of foreign archives; and oversight and the problems of reconciling it with the needs of security.
On 12 January 1998, a prominent story in The Times was headlined "MI5 decides that democracy is safe". The reporter, Michael Evans, said:
"The once-thriving F branch of the Security Service, which in its heyday investigated the extreme Left and the extreme Right, is now reduced to 'half' a desk officer who concerns himself with the pensions of former employees...
"An acknowledgement that this line of MI5 business has gone out of fashion will be made clear in the third edition of the Security Service booklet to be published in March".
Indeed, the booklet "MI5 – The Security Service" was published in March 1998. It stated on page 19:
"Subversion in the UK is essentially an historical phenomenon … The Security Service currently has no investigations in this area. During the financial year 1997/98 only 0.3 per cent. of the Service's resources were allocated to the remnants of this work, predominantly to pay the pensions of retired agents."
That came back to me on 21 June 1999, when the Home Secretary made a statement in the House about the demonstrations in the City of London. There had been some violent demonstrations, and the right hon. Gentleman said:
"I want to place on record my appreciation ... for the way in which the City of London police, supported by the Metropolitan police and the British Transport police, dealt with this wholly deplorable outbreak of violence which was plainly premeditated…
"At the moment, I have no firm information to suggest that a recurrence of those demonstrations is likely in the foreseeable future. However, I intend to hold further consultations with the Commissioner and the police service, to ensure that everything possible is done to protect the safety of the public and the businesses in the City and elsewhere in London...
"The London police ... have a fine record of co-operating fully with peaceful demonstrations. But the refusal of the organisers of that demonstration even to discuss with the police how the event was to be handled was wholly irresponsible, and showed a contempt for peaceful protest and for democracy." [Official Report, 21 June 1999; Vol.333, c.778.]
Hear, hear, we may all say to that.
In the questioning that followed that statement, I pointed out to the Home Secretary that perhaps we were having a problem with non-co-operation of demonstrators taking part in mass and illegal action because F branch of the Security Service had effectively been closed down. I urged him to recognise that that was a mistake and that, when such riots were being surreptitiously organised, the counter-measures that were required were those which that part of the Security Service had specialised in, but no longer carried out.
I was evidently wasting my breath, because the same thing happened all over again the following year. On 2 May, the Home Secretary once again made a statement to the House about demonstrations in London and Manchester. He said:
"Yesterday's shameful violence was the culmination of a loosely organised series of events that took place from Friday to Monday. Although all the events were broadly described as a protest against capitalism, they were organised by a number of wholly disparate groups.
"None of the organisers was willing to discuss preparations in advance with the police, who therefore had to make their plans on the basis of the best information obtained by them." [Official Report, 2 May 2000; Vol. 349, c. 21.]
A number of times in the statement and in the questions that followed it, the Home Secretary referred to the "benefit of hindsight" when hon. Members said that mistakes had been made in the way in which the London demonstration had been handled. However, I do not believe that it was a question of being wise after the event. It was wholly to be anticipated that, with demonstrations of that sort being organised in a clandestine manner by people who had no intention of obeying the law or demonstrating peacefully, a level of disruption would be caused that could have been dealt with only by the normal methods of the Security Service functioning as F branch of MI5 used to do.
I raise the matter of those two demonstrations because a third is in the pipeline. On 18 February, The Sunday Telegraph carried the following report.
"Thousands of anarchists plan to take over London streets on May Day in a violent version of Monopoly, seizing hotels and company headquarters in an effort to disrupt the general election expected on May 3.
"Police have uncovered plans for more than 15,000 extremists to converge on London from all over Europe on May 1."
The article quotes one of the plans, which states:
"This year we want to celebrate May Day by playing a game of Monopoly on the streets of London on May 1."
The plan advises activists to "consider the possibilities" and to
"seize the headquarters of companies involved in debt, privatised railways and utilities such as gas and electricity."
The plans also instruct activists to target
"above all the streets and areas in which the daily business of capitalism continues normally unhindered."
A number of speakers in the debate so far have wisely referred to the increasing importance of the role of the internet and of methods of communication by that means. The information that I have may or may not be reliable, but it suggests that the information that the police have managed to gather so far has primarily come from a study of websites such as www.mayday2001.org, or www.maydaymonopoly.net. Those sites include information that the organisers of the forthcoming riots have chosen to make available on the internet. I gather that details about how they are really proposing to organise their events are contained in encrypted e-mails. That encryption is easily available via a commercial firm – I will not name it because I do not wish to give more publicity to its activities – which has recently recruited a senior US encryption expert.
My information is that it would take the most powerful computers of the American National Security Agency or our own GCHQ at least 24 hours to break such a code. We are therefore facing the possibility of quite major, planned disruption that could well spill over into the day on which the General Election may be held. However, our police are having to make do without the advice of the Security Service that they would have had in the past if the decision – erroneous, in my view, and in that of others with an interest in this subject – had not been taken to destroy the counter-subversion arm of MI5.
I have been interested to note that some of the events of past subversive activities still have knock-on effects today. A letter published in The Guardian yesterday was headed "Log on to keeptheToriesout.com, the democratic way". It encouraged people to visit the website of something called "tacticalvoter.net".
I visited the website, to see what it was all about. Naturally, I had a degree of personal interest, given what the site might have contained with regard to my constituency. The site's home page revealed a commendable degree of honesty in stating that the aims of the organisation are to
"promote anti-Conservative tactical voting at the General Election ... To demonstrate the need for electoral reform ... To raise interest in the election and improve voter turnout."
In a section called "Background", the website states:
"At least 25 Tory MPs lost their seats to tactical voting in 1997. A further 127 are vulnerable."
I think that that figure is calculated on the basis that hon. Members who won anything under 50 per cent. of their constituency vote are, in principle, vulnerable to tactical voting.
The site continues:
"Websites that allowed Greens and Democrats to swap votes received ½ million hits, and nearly kept Bush out of the White House ... Web-inspired tactical voting could make a big difference to the shape of parliament and the tone of politics after this election."
So far, so good: we live in a free society. However, an item at the bottom of the page caught my attention. It stated that
"tacticalvoter.net is a company limited by guarantee ... We are funded by grants from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Limited and the New Politics Network".
It is then stated, in bold type, that
"tacticalvoter.net is not affiliated to or funded by any political party".
Well, yes and no: the organisation is being a little too modest in saying that it is funded by the New Politics Network. A visit to the network's website reveals that the telephone and fax numbers and the address of the New Politics Network are the same as those of tacticalvoter.net, which it funds.
I thought that the name New Politics Network rang a bell, and I was reminded of an excellent article that appeared not in a right-wing or reactionary magazine but in the New Statesman, that journal of progressivism, on 23 October last year. The article was by Nick Cohen, an investigative journalist of the left with a commendably independent spirit. The article was headlined,
"Up for grabs: £3.5 Million of Stalin's gold; New Politics Network funded by smuggled Russian gold."
The article began:
"You may think that the Communist Party and its heirs are of no importance. But their wealth could still have a profound political influence.
"I doubt if one person in 100,000 has heard of the New Politics Network. The all but unrecognisable remnant of the once militant Communist Party of Great Britain has been rebranded and repackaged like a flagging line of groceries ... The network matters because it has money – £3.5 million, to be precise – the residue of the Moscow gold smuggled from the Kremlin to the British Communist Party. To socialists, £3.5 million is a fantastic sum. Outside the trade union movement, no organisation on the left can match the network's wealth."
Putting together those few bits of paper and snippets of information might have been routine for MI5, if it had retained its counter-subversion role. It appears that an organisation that is avowedly trying to influence the outcome of a democratic election is doing so on the basis of funds supplied by the KGB – illegally – to the Communist Party of Great Britain. That party is the direct ancestor of the organisation to which I have drawn attention.
In the course of this Parliament, a number of other interesting cases have arisen out of Cold War history. The case that has interested me a great deal is the targeting by the Stasi of certain activists and individuals in the United Kingdom.
The Home Secretary, whom I am delighted to see back on the Treasury Bench, will remember our pleasant debate on the retention of MI5 files. In the early days of this Parliament, it looked as though those files might not be retained – indeed, some quarters on the left exerted a great deal of pressure to destroy the Cold War files of the Security Service. Having secured a half-hour Adjournment debate on whether the files should be retained or destroyed, I had the experience – intriguing to me, as a relatively new Back Bencher – of being fortunate enough to have none other than the Home Secretary himself responding to that debate.
I am not sure whether any other Back Bencher has been so fortunate as to have a Cabinet Minister respond in person to an Adjournment debate chosen by ballot, but I certainly felt duly privileged. Furthermore, I was delighted with the outcome: the Home Secretary took it on himself to refer the question of whether or not the files should be retained for future use by historians or destroyed to a proper committee of academics working in conjunction with the Public Record Office. Although it will be many years before those files are open to academic historians, I am sure that the Home Secretary concedes that it is as a result of that chain of events that a substantial part of the MI5 archive is now to be retained.
A similar process went on in the former communist East Germany in respect of the Stasi files held in Berlin. A large quantity of files was retained and has gradually been worked through by scholars, historians and some intelligence agencies. I shall not rehearse the revelations that have emerged during the course of this Parliament about the role of various people in British public life acting as agents for the Stasi, although as recently as September 2000, my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Edward Leigh) and I were intrigued to be identified as people who had attracted Stasi attention because of our work combating unilateral nuclear disarmament in the 1980s.
During the course of that controversy, I became concerned that it had taken a British academic, Dr Anthony Glees, to go to Berlin, to investigate the contents of the files and to bring into the open the role that had been played by some people in British public life in serving the Stasi, and that, at the time that Dr Glees made his investigations, it was clear that no similar investigation had been carried out by our official intelligence agencies. I believe that since I raised that issue in the House, progress has been made. Dr Glees has been consulted by the Security Service – I can say that openly, because I received a letter from a Minister confirming that.
My final point arises from those positive developments. Early in the debate, the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) seemed to suggest that the question of who was appointed to the Intelligence and Security Committee should be a matter for a simple vote by parliamentarians. I was greatly impressed by the comment by the hon. Member for Workington (Dale Campbell-Savours) – I am often greatly impressed by his comments – that one member of the Committee could completely destroy its integrity.
I have always been concerned to ensure that, if we are to have oversight of the intelligence and security services, we must be satisfied that those who undertake the job are themselves as thoroughly discreet and reliable, and have been vetted in a similar way, as those who are privy to the secrets of the agencies themselves. Otherwise, we build a weak link into the agencies' operational security. Although I hasten to emphasise that, in my following remarks, I shall not say anything to identify any individual, I should like to speak in support of the view expressed by the hon. Member for Workington as to a potential danger.
Among the papers that Dr Glees found in the Berlin archive was a Stasi report in which the agent tasked with reporting on the activities of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament noted the following:
"In the execution of the strategic orientation of goals, the CND will, in the future, more strongly exploit its position within Parliament using MPs. In this way, the CND members and MPs" –
here the agent names two people whom I shall not name –
"had been elected into the Parliamentary Defence Select Committee and would have access to confidential NATO materials which are marked 'Top Secret'. They would not have access to documents marked 'COSMIC'."
As a member of the Select Committee on Defence, I can confirm that I have not seen any document marked "COSMIC".
The point we should bear in mind is that the people who made those reports to a hostile foreign intelligence agency regarded the possibility of getting sympathetic Members of Parliament on to a sensitive Select Committee as a potential opening for the obtaining of classified information. I am happy to say that I am not aware of any document in the archive that shows that any such breach of security ever took place.
Kevin Barron: Does the hon. Gentleman recall the press reports about another case emerging from the East German Stasi files, that of Professor Vic Allen, who was based in West Yorkshire at the university? He had been on the central committee of CND, had been spying on the organisation, and had reported back to the East Germans. In the light of the hon. Gentleman's interests before entering the House, does he approve of Professor Allen's actions?
Dr Lewis: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, though he tempts me to take a path that I had been rigorously resisting. No, I do not approve of what Professor Allen did and I have raised that matter in the House. It gives me little satisfaction to have to point out that back in the mid-1980s, I was one of those who publicly identified Professor Allen as one of the most prominent pro-Soviet activists in CND.
However, on the specific question of membership of Select Committees and access to classified information, I am not aware that there was ever a case of a Member of Parliament leaking such information. From the files, I have learned that certain individuals, such as Professor Allen, Dr Robin Pearson and others, behaved disgracefully. I think that some of them should have been prosecuted, but the Government, in their wisdom, have decided that that should not be done. None the less, I believe that the document from which I have quoted confirms the importance of the comment made by the hon. Member for Workington, namely, that we have to have some safeguards to ensure that the people who are appointed to sensitive parliamentary Committees are reliable.
Dale Campbell-Savours: I became a member of CND in 1978 – I am not sure whether I still am a member – and I am a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee. The idea that someone might think that they had an interest in me because I have been a member of CND is utterly ludicrous. The problem is that the hon. Gentleman compartmentalises people: he presumes that because one had a view on nuclear weapons in the 1970s and 1980s, one falls within a group who would necessarily be targeted because they were somehow disloyal to the state. He is completely wrong and he misunderstands the British Labour movement.
Dr Lewis: I hope that when the hon. Gentleman reads carefully what I said in Hansard, he will see that I am not making that mistake. I am saying that we have to expect that people who were attempting to find out – illicitly – sensitive, classified and, if possible, "COSMIC" top-secret information, hoped that by working through Members of Parliament who were sympathetic in some respects – although not necessarily all the important respects – with their point of view they might progress their nefarious aims. That is why the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the need for some protection with regard to those appointed to such Committees are apposite.
Dr Norman Godman: Speaking as a member of Scottish CND and of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, whether I am on the files of MI5 or the Stasi or not, I have never heard of any approach by SCND to Scottish Labour Members of this House of the sort that he suggested a few moments ago, before he started on his qualification.
Dr Lewis: The hon. Gentleman is tempting me to do what I hoped I would not have to do. I am delighted to be able to say that a lady who is the Vice-President of Scottish CND, Marjorie Thompson, is a close personal friend of mine. We have always disagreed about nuclear weapons. She has stated publicly – this is why I am prepared to state it in the House – that one reason why she withdrew from the national CND and now confines herself to SCND was that she was so distressed by the extent to which sincere nuclear disarmers such as herself, who would never have dreamed of doing anything to favour the Soviet Union, had to fight off some senior communist sympathisers within the organisation who were trying to use it to those ends. Those are my views, but they are hers, too, and she would be happy to confirm them because she has stated them in public.
I will end as I began. A Security Service that does not have a counter-subversion capability is incomplete. In two successive years – I do not think that the Home Secretary was present when I pointed this out – we have had serious riots in the capital. On each occasion, the right hon. Gentleman has felt it necessary to bemoan the fact that those riots could not be contained as they should have been because of a lack of intelligence about what was going to happen.
We are not living in an age in which the police alone can hope to penetrate the electronic communications that are being used in encrypted form to organise such demonstrations. Therefore, I renew – possibly for the third year in a row – my plea to the Home Secretary to think again about the closing down of F branch and about the need for a counter-subversion arm to the Security Service, MI5.