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Security and democracy: is there a conflict?

Published date: 12 Jun 1994

Richard Dimbleby Lecture by the Director General of the Security Service, Dame Stella Rimington.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a great privilege for me, and through me for the whole of the Security Service, to have been invited to give this year's Richard Dimbleby Memorial Lecture.

It is particularly appropriate that we should commemorate Richard Dimbleby this month. During the Normandy landings in June 1944 he was, as Huw Weldon put it at the time of his death, "the voice of the nation".

Richard Dimbleby embodied all that is best in journalism and broadcasting. He understood the vital role the media should play in upholding and preserving our democratic system. Not least, the media can illuminate the workings of government and thereby act as a check and a balance. But, if the journalist is to carry out his role successfully, he must have some basic facts at his disposal. Tonight I shall be providing some of those facts for the first time to a wide audience.


As a nation we have always been fascinated by the so-called "secret services". English literature contains a long line of spy fiction from Kipling's Kim through John Buchan to John Le Carré, and many more besides. It is exciting stuff and has led to the creation of many myths- and some lurid speculation - about our work. I must admit that it is with some hesitation that I set out tonight to shed some daylight. I have a sneaking feeling that the fiction may turn out to be more fun than the reality!

I want to explain what MI5 (or the Security Service) does, why it is needed, and how it is accountable. I shall show that a security service is an important plank in the defence of a free society and of its civil liberties and basic values. A security service does not conflict with democracy, even though it must work largely in secret- provided it is properly overseen and controlled, as it is in this country.

Britain has three different security and intelligence services. The Security Service (MI5) is the Service I lead. MI6 is the Secret Intelligence Service (also known as SIS); and the third is the Government Communications Headquarters, GCHQ.

I blame George Smiley for some of the confusion. In his role as Karla-watcher and mole-hunter he was clearly doing MI5's work, but recruiting foreign agents behind the Iron Curtain placed him firmly in MI6. In fact, we are three separate organisations with different functions. We work closely together and we have the highest regard for each other's professionalism.

So what do we all do?

The primary role for both SIS and GCHQ is to collect the foreign intelligence which is needed to protect and support British interests. The Security Service, MI5, on the other hand, is the defensive service- the national security intelligence agency- and it is the Security Service I shall be talking about tonight. Our role is to safeguard the survival and well-being of the State against substantial threats which are covertly organised and purposeful.

Throughout history, governments have ensured that they get to know about matters affecting the security of the State. The first documented security service in England was in Queen Elizabeth's time under Sir Francis Walsingham. He successfully uncovered a number of plots against her, although she paid him so poorly that he was driven to the verge of bankruptcy. There is no innuendo in that observation!

Sir Francis probably did very much as he was ordered. Today, our functions are formally set out in the Act of Parliament, the Security Service Act, which is our mandate.

But why do we still need a security service?

The modern Security Service was founded in 1909 to counter the threat of German espionage. Both before and during the First World War, large numbers of spies were rounded up. During the Second War, the Service had the leading counter-espionage role, and it played a central part in the "double-cross" operation designed to mislead Hitler about the D-Day landing sites.

During the Cold War, much of the Service's effort again went to countering the sophisticated and well-resourced intelligence services of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact allies as they searched for this country's secrets. But since the collapse of Soviet Communism, the threats to national security and the tasks they generate for us have changed greatly. Countering espionage now takes up less than a quarter of our resources- half what it was three years ago, and a far cry from the position at the height of the Cold War.

The fall of the Communist regimes and the disintegration of the Soviet Union were fundamental changes and the Service moved rapidly to respond to them. We developed links with a number of countries in the former Warsaw Pact- once we were satisfied that democracy had taken hold and espionage against us had ceased. Together with our sister service SIS, we provided advice and support for the reorganised and reoriented security services, particularly to help them establish a democratic framework for their work. We also began to exchange information on areas where there were shared concerns- crucially in countering terrorism. It was an exciting time for officers from both sides of the old Iron Curtain and there were many intriguing encounters between former adversaries.

The development of these links to our newly democratic counterparts in central Europe was an important success. Last year, for example, a joint operation involving a number of agencies halted a large consignment of weapons originating in Poland and destined for so-called Loyalist terrorists in Northern Ireland.

The situation in Russia is different. Considerable progress has been made towards democratic reform. We no longer need fear the intense, military-related espionage against us associated with the Cold War. The cataclysmic threats of a nuclear exchange, or of an attack, have receded. But the process of reform is still vulnerable and, in the Russian security and intelligence services, it is less far advanced.

Both in this country and abroad there has been clear evidence of the sort of threats from espionage which we still need to counter. The case of Aldrich Ames, the CIA officer in the United States who recently pleaded guilty to spying, is one example.

Although, a year or so ago, the Russians reduced the number of their intelligence officers here, the total has now begun to creep up again. We must therefore remain on our guard. A spokesman for the Russian intelligence service has said recently: "There are friendly states but no friendly intelligence services." I do not believe this. It should be in our interests to establish the same sort of professional liaison with the Russian services that we have successfully established elsewhere, including in the former Eastern bloc. But there is still a considerable way to go.

Of course, the Warsaw Pact was not the only source of foreign espionage and other countries do still pose a threat, but it is, by and large, of a different (and lesser) order.

The other significant change in the Service's work since the collapse of Soviet Communism has been in relation to subversion. This is a much misunderstood and contentious area, largely because everyone has their own definition. The word "subversion" itself does not appear in the Security Service Act, although the sense is conveyed in the phrase "activities intended to overthrow or undermine parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means". The intention to undermine democracy is what "subversion" means to us. It does not include political dissent.

Many of those whom the Service had to investigate were members of parties and organisations which made no secret of their wish to undermine parliamentary democracy. There were also others who kept their true objectives secret. Some, such as the Communists, were loyal to the Soviet Union and its allies. Others, for example the Trotskyists, were fiercely critical of what they dubbed "state capitalism", but that made no difference to their determination to replace the democratic system with one of their own choosing.

The Service set out to identify all the members of these subversive groups and to investigate their activities. This was particularly necessary so that they could be denied access to secret information through the vetting system which Mr Attlee introduced in 1949.

In its rise to power, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union set great store by infiltrating and manipulating organisations such as trade unions. The Party of Great Britain followed this doctrine enthusiastically with the aim of bringing their influence to bear covertly and in a way which was far out of proportion to the negligible support they could achieve through the ballot box.

Activity of this sort was of concern to successive governments and was a legitimate subject of attention by the Security Service. The allegation that the Service investigated organisations which were not in themselves subversive is quite untrue. Our interest was in the subversives, not in the organisations they sought to penetrate.

I have spoken in the past tense because, over the last ten years, the threat from subversion has diminished dramatically. It now requires less than 5 per cent of our time. Some of that is now devoted to groups on the extreme right who are seeking to undermine democracy through the exploitation of racial hatred and xenophobia. But the Service's overwhelming focus today - three-quarters of our work - is concentrated on terrorism: terrorism originating both from within the United Kingdom and from abroad.

For the past twenty years or so the Security Service has been responsible for co-ordinating intelligence work against terrorism carried out from overseas and with the potential to affect this country's interests anywhere in the world. In countering this international terrorism we work closely with others, including SIS and GCHQ, and of course the police forces and other agencies in this country and abroad.

Over the past two years, and leaving aside the UK, terrorist attacks have taken place worldwide at a rate of nearly one a day. This illustrates the extent of the problem, and there are clearly limits to what can be done to prevent attacks which are planned and launched from abroad, even when many services work closely together. Nevertheless, we have together had many successes, most of them, I am afraid, necessarily unsung.

But, as one example, we have helped to prevent the intelligence services of a number of Middle Eastern states from carrying out sustained campaigns of murder against their opponents in this country and elsewhere. Members of Islamic terrorist groups and terrorists from the Indian sub-continent have been identified and their plans disrupted.

The Service played a major part in the investigation into the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie in December 1988, to the point where the atrocity was laid firmly at the door of Libya. As a result, Libya came under further significant international pressure to cut its support for terrorists, including the Provisional IRA, and of course to surrender the accused for trial.

The threat to British interests from terrorism of international origin is lower than it was in the 1980s. This is partly because we have in place better means of exchanging intelligence than before, both nationally and internationally. But in the foreseeable future I expect there to remain a significant threat to British interests, although the sources of it will vary from time to time. For example, the determined efforts to locate and kill the author Salman Rushdie seem likely to go on. Extremists from parts of North Africa, and also Kurdish groups, pose an increasing threat of violence, including to British tourists; and the conflict in former Yugoslavia could well spill over into acts of terrorism in Europe and elsewhere.

But the Service's most important task, and one which takes up nearly half our resources, is mounting intelligence operations to counter the threat from Irish terrorism. The Provisional IRA, in particular, is a sophisticated and ruthless terrorist organisation and poses the most serious threat to our national security. As they talk of peace, the IRA continues to carry out terrorist murders in Northern Ireland. At the same time they plan and mount attacks in mainland Britain, as we saw at Heathrow. In parallel, the so-called Loyalist paramilitary groups have continued with their own brand of indiscriminate violence.

Intelligence gathering against terrorists is difficult and dangerous. Some of my staff, and many of those who work closely with us, risk their lives to do it. They do it from a sense of public service and a firm belief in the rule of law and the democratic system. It is an anxious life for their families, who support them because they too believe in the importance of their work. When tragedy strikes, as it did on such a scale with the helicopter crash on 2 June, they suffer their losses silently and with dignity. We have much cause to be grateful to them all.

Intelligence work against Irish terrorism is closely coordinated, but it is complex, and I should make clear what the Security Service does and does not do.

In Northern Ireland, the Security Service provides extensive support for the Ulster Constabulary, who take the lead in gathering and exploiting intelligence relating to terrorism there, in addition to their police work.

Outside Northern Ireland, the Security Service has the main responsibility for intelligence investigations into all aspects of Irish terrorist activity anywhere in the world. For example, we investigate IRA plans for terrorist attacks against British military personnel in Europe or elsewhere, or their efforts, and those of the so-called Loyalist groups, to obtain arms and funds from abroad. Many of our counterparts in Europe and further afield give us unstinting support and assistance.

Until the autumn of 1992 our responsibilities for operations against the IRA did not cover the British mainland, where the Metropolitan Police Special Branch coordinated intelligence work against all Republican terrorism. Then, in October 1992, the Security Service was also given this responsibility. This made sense as far as intelligence operations were concerned, but the Service has not assumed any of the executive powers of the police. And, of course, we continue to work closely both with the Metropolitan Police and with other police forces. They all play a central role in countering Irish terrorism.

These new arrangements have achieved a sharper focus as well as a greater concentration of resources. All the agencies involved in countering terrorism in the UK cooperate closely and effectively. But counter terrorism is not an exact science. In an open and democratic society, the initial advantage will always lie with the terrorists; we will never be able to obtain a hundred per cent advance information of terrorists' plans and intentions.

There are successes. Many terrorist operations planned and begun are stopped through advance intelligence. Whenever it is possible, the perpetrators are brought to court. Over the past eighteen months or so, more than twenty Irish Republican terrorists have been arrested in Great Britain and charged. In Northern Ireland the security forces prevent four out of five terrorist attacks which are attempted. All told, some 700 terrorists, both Republican and Loyalist, have been convicted and are currently serving prison sentences; many others are awaiting trial.

The Security Service Act makes clear that the work of the Service must be strictly limited to countering only threats to national security. We are not involved in countering drug trafficking or organised crime, and we would only become involved if they came to pose such a threat to this country.

One new task which the Service has recently taken on is helping to counter the spread of weapons of mass destruction- nuclear, biological and chemical. This is not a new threat, of course, but it has been made more immediate by the collapse of the Soviet Union. General instability there has resulted in the loosening of controls over both sensitive materials and related expertise.

What does "protecting national security" actually mean?

I have described some of the threats which we currently face, but what does 'protecting national security' actually mean? How do we do it?

Those people who wish to damage the State will naturally organise themselves, and make plans, in secret, so we have to use secret means to investigate them. With the proper legal authority, we may need to tap their telephones, open their letters or eavesdrop on their conversations to find out their intentions. We may have to observe their movements secretly, or recruit members of those organisations as agents to tell us from the inside what is being planned.

Then we have to analyse and assess the information, and use our findings to counter the harm which is intended. MI5 has no executive powers, so we pass information to others and discuss with them what action they can take- to the police, for example, so that arrests can be made; or to the Home Office or the Foreign Office so that terrorists or intelligence officers can be deported or expelled.

Of course, it is also possible to protect whatever is threatened, so we advise on how to make the target more difficult to attack. We might, for example, suggest measures to protect a building, or the people in it, from terrorist attack. Or measures to protect data, if there is reason to think that secret information is at risk.

I should also like to clear up a fairly widespread misunderstanding. I have heard it said that the Service is responsible for "monitoring" the activities of people with a high public profile, on the off chance, so the argument goes, that they might either be at, or even pose, a risk. We do not do it. Such interference would not be justified. I and my staff believe deeply that, as a matter of principle, the very serious step of intruding into people's private lives must be strictly limited to what is unavoidable in the interests of national security and must, of course, be properly authorised.

The question is also asked, following the ending of the Cold War: are we using our "peace dividend" to turn our attention to the general public, or for that matter anyone else, about whom we, or perhaps the Government, feel uncomfortable? The idea is, quite frankly, ludicrous. Just as ludicrous as the allegation I once heard made that the Service carries out murder.


But these ideas, unfounded though they are, bring me to the key question of accountability for a security service.

Accountability lies at the heart of the tension between liberty and security, and I am going to say something about oversight and controls, without which a security service could put in jeopardy those very rights and liberties which it has been set up to protect. A delicate balance must be struck within the framework of government in determining how far the security service should be allowed to go in invading the privacy of the few in the interests of the nation as a whole. How do we ensure that a service such as ours does not exceed its remit?

The need for such a balance is reflected in international law and particularly in the European Convention on Human Rights. The Convention recognises that a State has a duty and a right to protect itself. In doing so, it may set up a security service to provide a covert response to covertly organised threats. But the Convention also makes clear that the state must respect individual rights and liberties. It must put its secret services on a clear legal basis, and it must establish independent oversight to ensure that these services never abuse their powers.

There is, of course, much room for debate about how best to regulate and control the activities of a security service. This raises difficult issues. What does "control" actually mean when what we are talking about is activity which must necessarily be carried out in secret? How close should the relationship be between the government and the security service?

In a totalitarian state, such as the old Soviet bloc, the security service, in effect, becomes an arm of the ruling party and the government. Its purpose is to keep them in power by ensuring virtually complete control over all aspects of life. They see the people themselves as one of the main threats to the State. And so the political "thought police" watch everyone to ensure that all dissent is stamped out. One only has to think of the all-pervasive East German secret police, the Stasi, with its thousands of informants, for a horrific modern example.

In a sophisticated democracy, the relationship between the government and the security service is completely different. The security service must operate within a clear framework of law. Its activities must be limited to countering genuine threats to national security, and controls are needed to govern how it may use, but not abuse, its powers.

But, and this is equally important, there must also be political independence. The government must not be able to pressure the service to do anything which is not directly concerned with genuine threats to national security. Neither must the service ever do anything which would favour one political party over another.

To carry out its functions, the Security Service clearly has to conduct its operations in secret. So in the future, as in the past, there will be little opportunity for the public to find out in any detail what we are doing. Mechanisms for oversight and accountability are therefore vital in providing reassurance as well as control. The legal authority for our Service is the Security Service Act of 1989. The Act put the controls contained in the Directive issued to the Service in 1952 and endorsed by the Home Secretaries of all subsequent governments, on a formal, statutory footing.

As Director General, I am fully conscious of the overriding importance of proper accountability for our Service. Members of the Service at all levels regard the legal framework which the Security Service Act provides fundamental to everything we do, and we welcomed it warmly. The framework of controls provided by the Act involves ministers, principally the Home Secretary, independent members of the judiciary and senior civil servants in Whitehall. The main plank of the system is the relationship between the Director General and the Home Secretary. I am accountable to him for the operations of the Service and for its efficiency. I am personally responsible under the Act for ensuring that the Service remains independent of any party political influence, and that it does nothing beyond what is permitted under the Act.

One of the most important aspects of my role is to ensure that the Service's investigations are always proportionate to the threat. The most intrusive techniques may only be used to counter the most serious threats. No officer may carry out any investigation unless it falls within strict rules and guidelines. There is a wide range of controls in place within the Service. They cover all levels of activity. Those governing investigations which may invade the privacy of the individual are particularly important.

Let me give you an example. Applications to the Secretary of State for warrants to intercept letters or telephone conversations, or to interfere with property, are rigorously examined by the Service's Legal Advisers and by the most senior levels of management, and again within the Home Office.

We in the Service, and the civil servants and ministers who work with us, are fully aware of the power we wield when we carry out secret investigations. We recognise that this power must be exercised reasonably and responsibly, and it is certainly not something which is taken lightly, or for granted, by any of us. There are Commissioners who scrutinise the propriety of warrants signed by the Secretary of State; and there are Tribunals to investigate any complaints from the public about our work.

These external oversight bodies, set up under both the Interception and the Security Service Acts, are comprised of experienced and independent legal figures who can, and do, read any papers they wish and interview staff. Their powers represent a substantial check, and also a disincentive for anyone to flout the rules.

The Service works totally within statute and within the law, and we never "subcontract" operations to get round the rules or to evade oversight and control. On the contrary, we give absolute priority to ensuring that everything we do is carried out with the proper authority.

I have described the existing systems of oversight and accountability which are provided for the Service, and I have explained that we regard them as vital in providing a vigorous and independent check on everything we do. In exactly the same way, I and the Service wholeheartedly welcome the new Oversight Committee of parliamentarians which is provided under the new Intelligence Services Act. This Committee will play a significant part in ensuring that the work of the three intelligence and security agencies has the confidence of both Parliament and the public. We shall give it our full support and cooperation.

A cynic may ask: "How can I know that what you are saying is true?" Well, it is difficult for an organisation which must work in secret to talk about what it does and to satisfy its critics. This dilemma is one of the prices of our constant efforts to maintain the right balance between security and democracy.

One result is the tendency for completely untrue "conspiracy theories" to emerge. These may have a certain populist market value, but they sidetrack and obstruct serious consideration of the issues. One of the most persistent came from the well-publicised claims of Peter Wright that MI5 plotted to undermine the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. No such plot existed, as ministers stated and as Peter Wright himself finally admitted. But this was a very damaging assertion, particularly so as it called into question the Service's political impartiality, which we are so determined to uphold.

Now in this sort of case, the Service finds itself in something of a "Catch 22" situation. But the point is this: we are a Service of some 2,000 people, working every day with a wide range of contacts both in and outside Government. How likely is it that we are all in the grip of what I can really only call "institutional corruption"?

Part of the answer, and also to the point I raised just now about our credibility, lies in effective oversight and control. But it also touches on integrity and the sort of people we are. I remember on one occasion, shortly after I became Director General, someone I met for the first time appeared genuinely surprised that I was not more like Rosa Klebb, one of James Bond's rather less than democratic counterparts!

We are, of course, a Service of ordinary people, drawn from a variety of backgrounds and with a wide range of qualities. About half of us are female and half are under 40, and there is a strong independent input to the recruitment of our staff. Fortunately, it is no longer necessary for anyone to pass one of the tests which was imposed on recruits to the Service in 1914. Then, staff had to show that they could make notes on their shirt cuff while cantering on horseback!

But our staff have other skills relevant to our work today. They are selected because of their judgement, impartiality and integrity, all of which contribute to a strong ethos within the Service. As in all organisations, there may, very occasionally, be the odd "rotten apple", and I certainly would not claim that we are infallible. But I am certain, not least because of the closely integrated way which we all work, that there is no group of "mavericks" in our Service pursuing some private agenda of their own.

Well, that is who we are, and how we are accountable to others for our secret work. But, inevitably and unavoidably, almost all oversight is itself carried out within the so-called "ring of secrecy". But my colleagues and I know very well that we must also have the confidence of the general public. We know the importance of explaining, as much as we can, what the Service does, and I am delighted to have this opportunity to do so. It certainly was not open to any of is predecessors, although I am sure they would have welcomed it.

We are, of course, obliged to keep information secret in order to be effective, this is not to say that we should necessarily be a wholly secret organisation.

Secrecy is not imposed for its own sake. It is not an end in itself. There have been a number of positive steps over the past couple of years to increase the level of information available, and not only about the Security Service. The fact that I am talking to you this evening, following the publication last year of a booklet about our Service, is evidence of a continuing commitment to this process.

The media, of course, have an important role to play in shaping public perceptions of what we are, and what we do. The press in this country has, over time, developed a particular interest in security and intelligence affairs. I hope that, by means of greater openness and by making more facts available, it will be possible for them to portray the work of this Service in a rather more sober light and, above all, much more accurately than is sometimes the case now.

I have no doubt that more information about what we do will emerge over time, particularly because of our increasing involvement as witnesses in criminal trials where, incidentally, we also have to account for what we have done. I welcome these developments. But we need to make it quite clear that there must be strict limits. The Service cannot do or say anything which would endanger our staff, our sources or our operations.

Many people outside the Service, some of whom will be watching this evening, regularly provide us with vital assistance, and often put themselves in danger by doing so. I would like to say here, in public, how grateful we are. You play a valuable role in helping to look after the safety and security of the country, and we thank you very much. Nothing will be said or done to compromise your safety or the work you are doing on our behalf.


Ladies and gentlemen, I have set out in this lecture to show that a security service such as MI5 is compatible with personal liberty within our democracy. It does not conflict with it but enhances it. I have explained why the Service is still needed in the post Cold War era, and how it is controlled and made accountable for what it does.

We are a modern, efficient and law-abiding service to the nation. Our principal task today is to help to counter the threat from terrorism to this country. We changed with the times, we are still changing, and we will continue to change. We have a young, enthusiastic and disciplined staff. They are positive, forward-looking and flexible, and work hard to defend this country and its citizens against threats to its security. They need, and deserve, your support.

I have demonstrated that, in everything we do, we are acutely aware of the balance between national security and the democratic process. Working in strict accordance with the rule of law, we will continue to exercise our powers reasonably and responsibly and with a strong respect for individual rights and privacy.

After all, it is the right of the individual to participate freely and safely in our democracy that we are here to protect.


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