To catch a spy How Islamists learnt to sue MI6
When Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy opens next week, it is likely to have all the spooks in London flocking to the cinema. John Le Carré, who wrote the book and helped direct the film, created a wonderful, almost romantic world of British espionage — mental chess games played against deplorable, but often brilliant opponents in Moscow. How things have changed. Nowadays the spying game means analysing Islamists’ rants, befriending ghastly regimes, fighting ambulance-chasing lawyers and having embarrassing secrets sprayed all over the press.
One almost feels sorry for Sir Mark Allen, who was MI6’s head of counter-intelligence when Tony Blair was sucking up to the Libyans seven years ago. His job was to make friends in Tripoli, so it appears he sent some gushing letters — leaked last week — referring almost reverentially to Col Gaddafi as ‘the Leader’. Worst of all is his cheery reference to Abdel Hakim Belhadj, a Libyan rebel whom the Brits had sent to Tripoli. And with reason: Belhadj was a member of an Islamist Libyan group, then linked to al-Qa’eda. His rendition was probably sanctioned by Jack Straw, then foreign secretary, at a time when Britain’s security services very much feared a new terrorist attack.
But that was then. Gaddafi has gone, and the idea of dealing with him now seems repugnant. Belhadj has emerged as a commander with the triumphant Libyan rebels — and is talking about suing MI6. This is no surprise. Suing Brits is now standard operating procedure for any terror suspect released from interrogation. The template has been set by Binyam Mohammed, an Ethiopian found in Afghanistan by the Americans and sent to Guantánamo Bay. As he previously lived in Britain, and was questioned on behalf of MI5, he sued. The courts refused to allow Britain’s spooks to give private evidence. If they wanted to defend themselves, they might well have had to declassify sensitive documents — including information shared by the CIA.
This is the million-dollar loophole. To publish shared intelligence would appal the Americans, who would radically scale back co-operation. So the government settled, and Binyam Mohammed shared more then
£10 million with the 15 other Guantánamo detainees who had been living in Britain. Such a jackpot sent out a loud, clear message: that Britain, already the world’s centre for libel tourism, was just as lucrative for terror suspects. MI6 is a dripping roast. Anyone, anywhere, can try their luck here simply by claiming to have been interrogated by a British officer when in captivity.
This is spy-baiting, a new form of spycatching played by terror suspects rather than other spies. It is possibly the game a Kenyan car dealer named Omar Awadh Omar sought to play after he was taken to Uganda and interrogated over bombings in Kampala last year. He now says that British
Suing Brits is now standard operating procedure for any terror suspect released from interrogation officers had been part of his interrogation, and he hired London lawyers to demand MI6 hand over any file they had on him. It would be a fair bet: the global nature of terrorism, and the phenomenon of the jetset jihadi, means MI6 is likely to hold files on a foreign terror suspect.
MI6 was lucky. A fortnight ago, a judge ruled that the spooks had no obligation to hand over anything. It was a close call. Had MI6 been ordered to disclose documents, it would have been dragged into another lengthy legal battle — causing further concern among allies of another failure to protect sources. The spies are caught in a legal
Retro virus trap. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, is soon expected to outline ways of dismantling the trap, offering greater scope to deal with such lawsuits in private. But the Americans have had enough, and are already more reluctant to share intelligence. The category ‘NOFOR’ — no foreign eyes — has become the new norm for CIA documents.
Handling terror suspects is, for British spooks, a relatively new problem. Until recently, MI6 didn’t interrogate anyone. Its business was to run secret agents in foreign countries and indulge in what John Le Carré called ‘tradecraft’. But the rules of this game changed utterly on 11 September 2001, when Western intelligence agencies suddenly found themselves on an urgent global manhunt and had to co-operate with their counterparts in all manner of unpleasant autocracies. The practice of moving suspects from one country to another predates the Cold War, but only recently has it been know as ‘rendition’.
The vocabulary sounds as fanciful as that of any novel. There are several categories of rendition: military rendition, rendition to justice, rendition to capture. All of these are legal ways of transporting suspects to other countries, sometimes for trial. Extraordinary rendition, moving a suspect to a place where he can be tortured, is illegal. The British spooks are explicit about where they draw the line. Sir John Sawers, newish head of MI6, said in a speech last year that torture is ‘illegal and abhorrent under any circumstances’. Even if torture would stop an act of terrorism, MI6 would not use it. ‘Some may question this,’ said Sir John. But it makes spies ‘strive harder to find different ways’ to fight terror.
A bold and principled stand, perhaps — but how does it square with bundling a Libyan dissident off to the notoriously brutal Gaddafi? Did they expect the suspect would be tickled with rose petals until he confessed? The answer, in this case, appears to be that MI6 only handed over Belhadj on condition that he would not be tortured and sent two agents to check on him later. Belhadj now says he told these officers in hand gestures that he had been tortured.
The High Court may well be his next stop. Then there is the court of public opinion: is this cosiness with tyrants the price we paid for a WMD-free Gaddafi who could be toppled by a ragtag army of rebels? Did we draw the line in the right place?
The front line of British spying in the 21st century is not an iron curtain, but a debate about what is legally and morally defensible. In the 1960s spies could agonise over this in private. Now the debate is held by judges and politicians, in front of newspapers and inquiries. No doubt for the better, but it rather drains the romance from spying. Little wonder that Le Carré and his world of mystery and nostalgia are back in fashion.
the spectator | 10 September 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk ANCIENT AND MODERN Time to learn from Poverty
Token gestures My problem with supermarket charitable giving
As Greeks howl for other people’s money and the EU coughs up, both should reflect on Aristophanes’ comedy Wealth (Ploutos), which pinpointed the mindsets 2,400 years ago.
Chremylus, a poor man, brings home a blind man, who turns out to be the god Wealth. Blinded by Zeus so that he cannot distinguish the good man from the bad, he bestows riches on the bad alone (a typical Greek take on life). Chremylus restores his sight at the shrine of Asclepius and returns home to find his cistern full of olive oil and his crockery turned to gold and silver. The rest of the play is taken up with the amusing consequences — e.g., a starving Hermes complains everyone is so rich that they no longer offer the gods sacrifices, and is found a job in the kitchen. It culminates in the decision to install Wealth in the state treasury on the Acropolis: every modern Greek’s fantasy.
Aristophanes, however, is not that simple-minded. In the course of the play, Poverty, a hideous old woman, makes an entrance. Mocked and reviled, she argues that poverty turns men into lean, implacable fighters, not fat, gouty ones like the rich; it bestows wisdom, not a lust for power; and nurtures justice, not anti-democratic criminality. Many a poor Greek, eyeing hubristic Athenian toffs, would have agreed. Further, if everyone has millions, who will do the work to produce the goods that the wealthy require, let alone luxuries like ‘pillows, carpets and perfume’? Chremylus responds with a tirade about the miseries of poverty, but Poverty accuses him of describing beggary, a very different thing.
What Poverty is describing is the state of simple, honest self-sufficiency, the lot to which most ancient Greeks felt they could aspire. Chremylus agrees there is some truth in this but ends defiantly, ‘You won’t persuade me, even if you persuade me’, and Poverty is driven out. If Greeks could now aspire to such self-sufficiency, that would help. As it is, they scream for cash, and the fat, gouty, power-mad, anti-democratic EU supinely shells it out. Much more of this and it will not be long before they are both reduced to beggary — with millions of others.
— Peter Jones
Charity might begin at home, but worrying about charity begins at Waitrose. Those little green tokens they give you with your receipt — nice touch, I used to think. If the store won’t give me any of my money back by way of a loyalty card, at least they’ll give it to someone I can vote for, by dropping the token into one of three compartments in a big clear plastic box by the exit. Each compartment relates to a local charity. New line-up every month, new chance to feel good about yourself.
But no good deed goes unpunished, so it didn’t take long for doubts to creep in. There was the whole concept of Waitrose donating to charity, for a start. Given their prices, shouldn’t they be aiming a little higher than the local playground? If I had a pound for everyone who’s told me they can no longer afford to shop solely at Waitrose, I could afford to shop solely at Waitrose. Rake, say, 5 per cent off kumquat profits for a month and the company could fund the entire NHS.
Filing this thought under ‘not worthy’, I progressed to the real problem — which charity to plump for? Some were easy to dismiss; anything with ‘young offenders’ in the description, for example. But the rest lined up like strays at Battersea Dogs Home. To choose one was to reject the others. A vote for the old people’s minibus meant a kick in the teeth for autistic teenagers. Saying ‘yes’ to fighting dyslexia should have felt good, but all I could register was the ‘V’ I’d just flicked to battered wives. Every shopping trip was emotional torture.
I was tempted to take my grandmother’s route of refusing to give to charity at all because ‘you never know how much of your money will get through’. Handy excuse, that. But it doesn’t apply here, because Waitrose will give the money anyway — don’t I have a duty to vote? For a while I evaded tough choices by alternating between the candidates on successive visits — but again, what conviction did that show? The net effect was the same as not voting at all. A slight sop to my conscience is that it isn’t winner takes all: Waitrose split the money in proportion to tokens received. I can vote for my lessfavoured charities less often and they’ll get something. But the essential problem remains: how much do I favour each charity?
Part of the trouble is that the clear plastic box lets you see how many tokens each charity has attracted so far, opening up the the spectator | 10 September 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk possibility that your choice could be swayed by other people’s, however subconsciously. Shouldn’t Waitrose follow the lead of the French, who ban opinion polls during general elections for precisely this reason? That way the Scout group would know they’d lost fair and square, not just because the owl sanctuary took an early though unrepresentative lead. (Another procedural anomaly is the number of people who let their toddlers choose which slot to put the token in. Doesn’t that make a mockery of the whole thing?)
My choices tend to go in phases. There’s the ‘sticking to my guns’ phase, in which I resolutely pick the charity that first and most powerfully catches my attention.Then there’s the ‘head over heart’ phase, where I tell myself that charity is too important to be governed by instant emotion, and reject my first choice
Saying ‘yes’ to fighting dyslexia should have felt good, but what about the ‘V’
I’d just flicked to battered wives?
simply because it is my first choice. The ‘British love of the underdog’ phase also features, where instead of resenting the clear plastic I embrace it, and give my token to whoever is in third place — sometimes even if it’s the young offenders.
These mood swings have come to intrigue me. Normally we see or hear charity appeals in isolation (a newspaper ad, a radio broadcast); only when the competitors are side by side, arranged on Waitrose’s Olympic podium of suffering, do we examine what excites our sympathy most, and why. It’s forced me to confront some prejudices. The young offenders, for instance: if I believe (as I think I do) in carrots as well as sticks to keep them out of trouble, shouldn’t I help pay for the carrots? (If they’re coming from Waitrose, that help will be needed.) Then there are cats.As a doglover I’ve always associated cats with Bond villains and incontinent old women. Yet isn’t a cat in hardship just as deserving of my pity and help as a troubled hound? Something about the act of extending my arm towards the box, token gripped in doubtful fingers, makes me ashamed of my whims.
In fact even the thought of the box is making me regret that comment about incontinent old women. Next time their charity comes round I’ll do the necessary. I only hope no one sets up a refuge for distressed Bond villains.