MI5 and the Libyans: it’s not all the spooks’ fault
Intelligence work requires a broad mind and elastic morals - and we were wooing Gaddafi at the time
Classified documents discovered in Tripoli are the latest embarrassment in the UK's 'war on terror'. If authentic, they reveal that in 2005 the Security Service (MI5) asked Colonel Gaddafi's secret police for regular updates on what Islamists held in the regime's dungeons were revealing under interrogation - 'detainee reports' in the words of Eliza Manningham-Buller, then director general of MI5.
In exchange, MI5 agreed to trade information with their Libyan counterparts on 50 British-based Libyans who were both opponents of the Gaddafi regime and supporters of global jihad.
Meanwhile a secret CIA document, also found in Tripoli, suggests that the British helped the Libyans by organising the US-style 'rendition' of a suspected terrorist, Abu Munthir, from Hong Kong to Tripoli in 2004, despite the clear risk that he would be tortured when he got there. The fate of Abu Munthir is still unknown.
Everyone is, of course, appalled. The human rights lobby is using the information to discredit 'control orders'. The current government is blaming the previous government. The spooks are saying nothing, for now, but their spinning will emerge in the next few days through tame media mouthpieces.
Plain, commonsense folk are confused. It's like falling asleep in the middle of a Feydeau farce and losing track of who is sleeping with whom.
To be fair to both the politicians and the spooks, the revelations are not as scandalous as they appear at first sight.
In one sense we are merely being treated to a routine anatomy lesson in intelligence work. When the intelligence body is cut open before us the gooey bits inside are not pleasant to behold. But it does not mean that we can do without them. They might be necessary and useful in preserving British lives and interests.
Robert Gates, formerly director of the CIA and recently retired US defence secretary, put it well in his memoirs From the Shadows:
"...during the global struggle against the Soviet Union, CIA (and the United States more broadly) ended up with some strange and unsavoury bedfellows. Most you wouldn't bring home to Mom."
Intelligence work requires a broad mind and elastic morals. Most Britons accept this - if only because that's the way it is in the BBC TV series Spooks.
We are also seeing what happens when the government of the day changes sides. Whatever people think about Messrs Blair and Brown, it was their settled policy to have Colonel Gaddafi, 'inside the tent'. Gaddafi was our ally then in the same way the Libyan rebels are now. Maybe they were wrong, but that is how things were. The same went for the current government in its first 10 months in office, until March this year.
But there is one angle revealed by the Tripoli revelations that should worry us. It is nothing to do with the nature of intelligence work or the whims of 'here today gone tomorrow' governments. It has to do with the permanent background against which our intelligence services have been forced to operate.
Consider why MI5 got involved in trading information with Gaddafi's sadistic spooks in the first place. They were trying, quite properly, to keep tabs on Islamist extremists here - 50 or so Libyan nationals sheltering in the UK from Gaddafi's wrath, but who were in fact members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), suspected of having ties to al-Qaeda. More specifically, they were thought to be acting as a 'pipeline' for young jihadists wanting to go to Iraq to fight western, including British, soldiers.
Abu Munthir, for instance, the subject of that rendition from Hong Kong, had been living in Britain where he is understood to have encouraged British Muslims to mount a bomb attack - in England.
In a sane world the British authorities would simply have deported these men who were (and are currently) abusing our hospitality. But they couldn't. Human rights legislation prevented it. As a result, known jihadists were allowed to plot in (probably subsidised) comfort in British cities. All British intelligence could do about it was spy on them for Gaddafi and hope for a few intelligence scraps from his torturers.
As we can now see from this affair, our inability to control our own borders poses a double threat to the Queen's Peace. Not only do we have to tolerate violent foreign extremists in our midst. But also our intelligence services are forced into strange and unhealthy alliances which bring them into disrepute with the only constituency that really matters in the fightback against jihadism, British Muslims.
Perhaps Baroness Manningham-Buller, former head of MI5, will have something to say about this conundrum during her Reith lectures which begin on BBC Radio 4 tomorrow. ·
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