Secret State: The Spies Who Bug Me

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Former MI5 officer David Shayler spoke to Socialist Review about whistleblowing on the intelligence services.

Why do you think the Director of Public Prosecutions dropped the case against Katharine Gun?

The issue first is whether the attorney general had a conflict of interest, because any Official Secrets Act (OSA) prosecution has to have his formal permission. This is where a government minister, someone who quite often stands to be embarrassed by what is being said, is making a decision about whether that person should be put in front of a jury. The attorney general decided to prosecute initially, and now has pulled out. What appears to be the cause is the threat that Katharine Gun would try to get disclosure of the legal advice about the war, and that she would be able to use that for a defence of ’necessity‘.

That defence of necessity came about because of your case, didn‘t it?

That‘s right. The appeal court said that somebody charged with a breach of the OSA could have a notional defence of necessity. There are three elements to it: there must be an imminent threat to life and limb; it must be a proportional response; and I think it‘s got to be against something illegal as well. So it‘s quite tightly defined. I‘m not sure that she would have been able to use it - just the threat of her using it was enough to get the attorney general to back down.

Are you at all surprised by the current allegations about bugging?

Not at all, it‘s well known in the services. I can‘t really say much on the record, because I might get prosecuted again - but I can say that Richard Tomlinson said that MI6 had a spy in the Bundesbank. It also wouldn‘t surprise me if they were bugging the EU. Read into that what you would like.

The question that‘s got to be asked again and again is, why did the intelligence services sign that Joint Intelligence Committee paper off when they knew that the 45 minute claim referred to battlefield munitions and not WMD? If a desk officer made that kind of mistake they would get a black mark against their record, maybe for years. So why should there be a different rule for the heads of service? The heads of service should be sacked for making a mistake as fundamental as that.

The 45 minute case has revealed an enormous amount that people didn‘t know about this country. How people could go from Number 10 to the Evening Standard, demand the headline, and get it. That reflects on my case. Someone briefs an intelligence correspondent, says to them, ’Put this shit in about Shayler,‘ and they put it in, because otherwise they don‘t get it next time. They have to put in stuff they know may be false in order to stay within the charmed circle.

The whole thing creates a false historical record. For instance, MI6 went to the Sunday Telegraph and invented a story about Colonel Gadaffi‘s son. Now, I know it‘s made up, because the MI6 officer who briefed me told me that. But I wouldn‘t have known otherwise.

Do you think the Butler inquiry will give us any answers?

I don‘t think there can ever have been an inquiry that‘s been so attacked for its lack of independence. We used to joke in MI5 when people called for a full and independent inquiry, ’As opposed to what - a half-baked, biased inquiry?‘ But all the inquiries about the war have been biased and half-baked. The Foreign Affairs Select Committee: you weren‘t allowed to call certain people or see certain documents, so they got it wrong about Kelly being the source. The Intelligence Security Committee: we‘ve seen bits of the report, and we don‘t know who they interviewed. In the Hutton inquiry at least we‘ve seen the evidence, because we‘ve got the internet, thank god. But he chose to ignore great swathes of it. He didn‘t recognise the fundamental importance of free speech. And our judges never do, because they‘re so establishment-minded. Now we have the Butler inquiry, which is chaired by a man who‘s famous for saying ’half the truth is the truth‘. Sometimes I think we‘re living in Alice in Wonderland.