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The Big Breach
From Top Secret to Maximum Security
The fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War marked the beginning of a period which has seen an unprecedented crisis systematically unfold within the intelligence services of Britain and many other countries. These events - which MI6 and the CIA comprehensively failed to predict - destroyed much of the raison d'etre of both MI6 and MI5, its domestic counterpart. Organisations which had been created and formed primarily in response to the perceived and actual threats from the Soviet bloc could not easily adapt to the new circumstances. What use now for hundreds of Soviet specialists, of people who had built up a comprehensive expertise on every twist and turn in the Kremlin? Or for those who had spent years building files on subversives and fellow travelers? New conditions require new solutions. But as the world changes and enters a much less certain future, no longer dominated by the two great power blocs, Britain's security services have notably failed to discover a new role for themselves.
Despite moving into new territories, such as anti-proliferation and combating crime, whether it be money laundering or drug smuggling, the evidence is that these activities are seen within the security services as being rather distasteful, like a once well-to-do lady taking in washing. But the world has impinged. The old order no longer exists. Secrecy can no longer be regarded as an absolute in an era of human rights and freedom of information. It is hardly, therefore, surprising that MI5, MI6 and their less well-known sister agencies have all come under increasing scrutiny in the last three or four years. As a journalist, it is hard to think of a time when so much has appeared in print about the security services.
Those seeking reform in Whitehall have, until recently, trodden a lonely path. The security community has amply demonstrated its continuing grip on the levers of power. The British government, no matter of which political hue, has single-mindedly pursued former intelligence officials, journalists and their publications in what has become a vain attempt to stop information reaching the public domain. Richard Tomlinson is not the only person to have been hounded and harassed by the security services and Special Branch. David Shayler and Annie Machon, 'Martin Ingrams', Liam Clarke, Nigel Wylde, Martin Bright, Tony Geraghty, Ed Moloney, Julie-Ann Davies and James Steen have all been subject to injunctions, police raids and threats of imprisonment. This is not a comprehensive list. In court hearings which led to the Sunday Times winning the right to publish extracts from this book once it was in the public domain, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of being accused in a witness statement written by an anonymous senior member of MI6. This person produced no evidence other than to say his information came from 'secret sources'. The Master of the Rolls, Lord Phillips, rejected these allegations, referring to them disparagingly as 'speculative possibilities'.
It is clear that Britain's laws are out-of-date. Most democracies around the world have adopted internationally accepted standards of freedom of expression and freedom of access to information. In Britain the level of public accountability of the security services is zero. As Richard Tomlinson spells out in this book, referring to the head of MI6, 'No one can tell the Boss what to do.' The Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, accountable only to the Prime Minister, offers the barest of fig leaves to cover this lack of scrutiny. Compare this to the United States, where several years ago I sat and listened to a potential director of the CIA be examined in public by senators. The use of such procedures has not, as far as I know, weakened democracy.
Richard Tomlinson has been criticised for the suggestion that he may reveal state secrets. There are several points to make in response. First, MI6 has had six years to conduct the most thorough security audit on everything once connected with his work. It is unlikely that they will have left any loose ends. Second, the real objection by MI6 to this book is not what secrets he may have accidentally leaked. His account of his time since leaving MI6 is infinitely more damaging to the service than any possible secrets the book may reveal to a hostile intelligence service. While it may be interesting to read about the latest gizmo developed by Q's real-life equivalent, or derring-do in distant lands, far more can be gleaned about the internal state of affairs within MI6 by the fact that for five years it has been unable to settle what was effectively a personnel issue. Its vindictive pursuit of a former high-flyer throughout the courts of the world - at a cost of millions of pounds to the taxpayer - reveals an organisation which has not got its priorities right.
Despite his experiences, Richard Tomlinson has remained remarkably human. He has shown great resilience, despite numerous arrests, removal of his personal property and off-the-record briefings by his former employers to gullible journalists who have printed extravagant stories about him without bothering to check the facts.
Significantly, this book reveals that MI6 regularly sends its officers into the field under journalistic cover, a practice which is banned in many countries, including the United States. The unhealthy relationship between MI6 and journalists is only one of many issues raised by The Big Breach.
Now that the book is out, it cannot be right for MI6 to continue its campaign against Richard Tomlinson. Far better it should put in place the reforms which will ensure such a debacle never takes place again. No modern democracy can allow a secret organisation spending hundreds of millions of pounds every year to exist free from oversight and oblivious to its public responsibilities.
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