‘MI5 under a watchdog’: UK PM offers rare glimpse of Security Service’s illegal activities
In a written statement to Parliament, May mentioned a direction which instructed the Investigatory Powers Commissioner to “keep under review the application of the Security Service guidelines on the use of agents who participate in criminality and the authorisations issued in accordance with them.” Such comments offer the public a rare glimpse into MI5’s potential involvement in crime.
MI5 describes its own agents as “one of the most significant information gathering assets we have.” According to MI5’s website, agent operations are run by specially trained officers and can continue for long periods – with some missions taking years to complete.
Last year MI5 director general Andrew Parker told audiences in a speech that Britain owes its security agents “a debt of gratitude.” He added: “I want to record special thanks to our agents, sometimes known as human sources. Those who courageously work for us in secret, close to the extremists, who do so much to help us prevent terrorist atrocities.”
A report published in 2016 by Intelligence Services Commissioner Sir Mark Waller contained a section entitled “agent participation in the commission of an offence.” The report said: “There may be occasions where a CHIS (Covert Human Intelligence Source) participates in a criminal offence in order to gather the required intelligence, for example membership of a proscribed organisation or handling stolen goods.
“However in specific situations where the intelligence dividend justifies it, a good argument can be made that it is in the public interest and for the greater good to become involved. Although such activity cannot be made lawful I have recommended that the agency must justify the public interest test.”
Human rights organisation Reprieve said it was the first time the UK government had acknowledged that guidance was needed within the UK to regulate criminal activity within its intelligence services. Director of Reprieve Maya Foa called on the Government to publish the guidelines referenced in the Prime Minister’s statement. “Authorised criminality is the most intrusive power a state can wield,” she said.
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