Changes and reforms

The Security Service Act and a new era

 By Professor Christopher Andrew, author of "The Defence of the Realm".

Whitehall’s anxiety about the increased threat from international terrorism helped to produce a major change in Security Service culture. 

Sir Patrick Walker recalls that, during his years in charge of counter-terrorism during the mid-1980s, the Service ‘moved from being an introvert organisation with few officers (and certainly not the more junior) in touch with Whitehall departments to a Service at ease in Whitehall and confident in its expertise’. But, though alert to the threat from terrorism, Whitehall shrank from the cost of implementing MI5’s recommendations for ‘protective security’ at hundreds of ‘Economic Key Points’ (EKPs) around the UK. Even at the end of the 1980s the Security Service believed that ‘only a small number were even reasonably protected.’

The greater confidence of MI5 officers in their dealings with Whitehall owed much to the appointment as Director General from 1985 to 1988 of Sir Antony ‘Tony’ Duff: war hero, ex-ambassador, former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and Intelligence Co-ordinator in the Cabinet Office. As well as being wise in the ways of Whitehall, the new DG did much for Service morale, which had been damaged by the public recriminations provoked by the Bettaney affair, whose impact had been heightened by the uncommunicative management style of Sir John Jones, his predecessor as DG.

A further threat to Service morale derived from the hostile global publicity generated in 1986-7 by Spycatcher, the memoirs of the retired MI5 officer, Peter Wright. Unsuccessful government attempts to prevent publication only intensified media attacks. An internal MI5 assessment found convincing evidence of ‘dishonesty on the part of Wright, who did not scruple to invent evidence where none existed’ to support the conspiracy theories in his memoirs. At the time, however, there was no Intelligence and Security Committee of the kind established in 1994, which could have used classified information to produce a public report on Wright’s allegations.

The Master of the Rolls, Sir John Donaldson, said, when giving judgment in an action against newspapers which had published Spycatcher extracts, ‘It may be that the time has come when Parliament should regularise the position of the Security Service.’ The Service agreed. Its Annual Report for 1987–8 concluded that ‘There is complete acceptance among staff of the desirability of legislation for the Security Service.’ However, Ministers initially disagreed. The main credit for convincing the government and senior civil servants of the need for legislation belongs to Duff.

The Security Service Act 1989 at last placed MI5 on a statutory footing, while keeping it under the authority of the Home Secretary. To the tasks set out in the 1952 Maxwell Fyfe Directive, the Act added counter-terrorism and the need to safeguard Britain’s ‘economic well-being’. In addition to MI5’s authority under Home Office Warrants (HOWs) for letter-opening and telephone-tapping established by the 1985 Interception of Communications Act, the Security Service Act added the authority, also under HOWs, for ‘entry on or interference with property’. 

With the sensational publicity provoked by the Spycatcher affair now largely abated, the Security Service Act attracted less public interest and parliamentary attention than the government had anticipated. Passions in the poorly attended Commons debates ran less strongly than during the passage of the Interception of Communications Bill four years earlier. Even the authorization for ‘entry on or interference with property’, which had been thought too contentious to include in the 1985 Act, failed to generate major controversy.

Within Whitehall, however, the Act was recognized as a turning point in the history of the British intelligence community and was celebrated by a party at MI5 HQ attended by Margaret Thatcher and the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay.