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25 Mar, 2009 06:32

MI5 intimates ‘Russian spies threat’

The British counter-intelligence agency MI-5 warns that foreign spies still present a risk to national security alongside the likes of Al-Qaeda.

During the current climate of fear over terror threats, it appears that age-old espionage has been overlooked and, according to a UK government report, the biggest threat comes from Russia.

The espionage in the UK has developed in different ways since the end of the Cold War.

UK security sources have revealed that the whole world is trying to steal Britain’s most sensitive secrets. The list of foreign agencies operating within the UK that was made public includes Iran, Syria, North Korea, Serbia, and even some allies from NATO: France and Germany are allegedly engaged in industrial and political espionage within the UK.

A former MI6 officer Harry Ferguson says this is actually normal practice in the intelligence world – even among allies.

“You must remember the UK is very close to America, so it’s a good place to target for information about America. It’s also very close to Europe; it’s for that beauty of what we call a third country that you can run operations here that actually touch on several countries. So I don’t think this is new at all,” Ferguson says.

In fact even the United States – Britain’s closest ally – doesn’t seem to be bothered by breaching an agreement not to spy on each other. It came out at the end of last year that US intelligence had put together a file “of a personal nature” on Tony Blair while he was Prime Minister.

The latest report distributed to all government departments allegedly warns it is too easy to lose sight of the threat from traditional espionage and become solely focused on attacks by Al Qaeda.

A restricted government report leaked to the Sunday Telegraph goes as follows: “It is estimated that at least 20 foreign intelligence services are operating to some degree against UK interests. Of greatest concern are the Russians and Chinese.”

So, despite the fact that the KGB is no longer there, the Russians are still the greatest concern?

Harry Ferguson, a former M16 officer, says “I think it is an appeal for more funds. The intelligence services in Britain have done fantastically well over the past few years since 9/11, and they’ve got a lot of money, but you can never have enough power. So I think this is a case of 'oh, we’ve got so many targets we’re still fighting the old war as well as the new war' – it is just a way of making sure you keep all that money you’ve been given. I mean the truth is the Chinese, with their relatively large intelligence service, never went away. And neither did the Russians, to a great extent. So, it’s saying look, we’re doing a really good job and look how hard it is.”

The opinions of the MI6 officer are echoed by the former US intelligence chief Bob Ayers.

“This sounds to me like bureaucratic infighting,” he says.

“The resources that have been allocated to defeat terrorism have gone up dramatically in the UK. The intelligence services, the MI6 and the MI5 have increased their personnel targeting terrorism dramatically. Now that personnel increase has to come at the expense of something else.”

Ayers mockingly adds that “what we have now got is someone who is more concerned with classical espionage telling the press, don’t forget about classical espionage, don’t forget about us – this is still important!”

All the experts agree, in today’s globalized high-tech world there aren’t that many well-kept big secrets. But nations generally don't want to share those that do exist even with their allies, so there’s still going to be a role for both the spies and the spy catchers.