Photo of Norman Baker

Norman Baker (Lewes, Liberal Democrat)

I welcome the opportunity to introduce this debate. I am pleased to see the Minister for the Middle East in his place; I was expecting the Minister for Europe to answer the debate. The Minister for the Middle East is respected throughout the House.

I am glad that we have our security services MI5 and MI6 in place. It is difficult to imagine what sort of society we would have if such organisations were not doing that important work for us. However, I hope that the Minister will agree that it wrong to give any organ of the state, no matter what it does, a blank cheque. Hon. Members have a proper role in holding them to account—commensurate, of course, with national security.

We need a professional, properly funded and rational organisation in MI6. In my view, we want one that is free from inappropriate political interference and—a linked matter—one that acts in the British national interest. I want to explore today whether those two criteria were being met by MI6 in its present and immediately past activities. It seems to me—the Minister will doubtless respond to this point—that MI6 follows broad political objectives such as safeguarding national security and protecting our economic interests, and that it does so by providing the best, secure intelligence to further those aims.

In hindsight, it is clear that in the run-up to the Iraq war we were sold a distortion of intelligence to help a narrow political objective—to shape public opinion towards supporting a pre-emptive attack on Iraq. The Minister will doubtless be familiar with the responses in the Butler report, a useful document. It gives an interesting description at paragraph 32:

"The Government wanted an unclassified document on which it could draw in its advocacy of its policy. The JIC sought to offer a dispassionate assessment of intelligence".

At paragraph 34, the report states:

"We conclude that it was a serious weakness that the JIC's warnings on the limitations of the intelligence underlying its judgements were not made sufficiently clear in the dossier."

At paragraph 33, it states that

"judgements in the dossier went to (although not beyond) the outer limits of the intelligence available."

At paragraph 35, the report says that

"more weight was placed on the intelligence than it could bear."

Clearly, there are lessons to be learned. I do not want to revisit the entire history of the Hutton inquiry or of matters leading to the Iraq war, but that is an important perception. It would be useful to see whether the problem is being corrected.

I want to pursue two issues. The first is the role of John Scarlett, then head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, in the dodgy dossier and subsequently. The second is the use of information. It is clear that language was changed in order to turn neutral intelligence—the best available analysis, with all the caveats built into it—into something much more certain. In other words—I dare say that it was like a red rag to a bull—what Andrew Gilligan said was by and large right.

It is clear that words such as "might" and "possibly" were removed, and more certain words such as "can" and "will" put in their place. We also know from extensive evidence in the Hutton inquiry that many of those changes were proposed by Alastair Campbell and No. 10. I do not blame Mr. Campbell; he was doing his job. However, I do blame John Scarlett, head of JIC, for succumbing to that pressure and allowing what was supposed to be a neutral intelligence document to be manipulated for political purposes. We now know that no weapons of mass destruction were to be found. There is a serious question over why John Scarlett should have allowed his intelligence to be changed in that way. Indeed, that episode did the intelligence services, which we want to hold in the highest regard, a considerable disservice.

I draw the Minister's attention to the 45-minute claim, and also to a prominent article in The Observer of 15 May 2005 by the respected journalist Anthony Barnett. In it, he alleged that John Scarlett had asked another weapons inspector, the Australian Dr. Rod Barton, to sex up another dossier by inserting nine "nuggets". The article stated:

"Barton had been hand-picked by the CIA to be the special adviser to the Iraq Survey Group".

In that capacity, Barton was preparing a document, but the group was preparing to reach quite different and damning conclusions. The article reported that

"Saddam did not have any WMDs at the time of the US-led invasion",

and it alleged—I have no knowledge of whether it is true—that Saddam

"had not had any programmes to manufacture such weapons after 1991."

In response to that, The Observer quotes Dr. Barton as saying that

"senior figures in British intelligence tired to stop the ISG publishing its interim report when they realised what it would say. He"—

that is Dr. Barton—

"also reveals how when this failed, John Scarlett...tried to strengthen the ISG report by inserting nine 'nuggets' of information to imply Saddam's WMD programmes were active".

Included in that article were suggestions that

"Saddam was working on a smallpox weapon, did have mobile biological laboratories and was developing research equipment for use in nuclear weapons."

The report continues:

"I couldn't believe it...He"—

that is John Scarlett—

"was suggesting dragging things from a previous report [that the ISG had found to be false] to use them to, well, 'sex it up'. It was an attempt to make our report appear to imply that maybe there were still WMD out there. I knew he had been responsible for your [government's] dossier and then I realised he was trying to do the same thing."

Anthony Barnett of The Observer makes a serious allegation. I am not aware whether it has been properly investigated or a proper rebuttal given—if, indeed, a rebuttal is appropriate. I ask the Minister to comment on that report. I ask specifically whether it is true, and if so where it leaves John Scarlett, who appears to be continuing the mistakes—I put it neutrally—involved in drawing up the dossier before the invasion of Iraq. It would be helpful if the Minister were to publish the e-mail correspondence between John Scarlett and the ISG in that regard. It seems not to be a security matter, but a matter of public interest with no security implications.

I turn to another MI6 strand, which is the activities carried out by the information operations unit. The interests of the Government of the day are not necessarily those of the nation as a whole. That message is well understood by civil servants—it is established in the civil service code of practice—and it also applies to intelligence officers. Yet Nick Rufford, a journalist with The Sunday Times, produced a story on 28 December 2003 in which he alleged that attempts were made by MI6 through something called "operation mass appeal" to plant stories in the media about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction. Scott Ritter, the former UN weapons inspector, was reported as saying

"The aim was to convince the public that Iraq was a far greater threat than it actually was".

If that is so, it suggests that MI6 was being used to further a narrow political objective rather than anything in the national interest. If I worked for MI6, I would be rather concerned that my activities were being manipulated in that way. Nick Rufford's story was backed up by a report by the respected journalist Seymour Hersh, on the other side of the pond, in which he reported a former American intelligence officer as saying,

"It was intelligence that was crap, and that we couldn't move on, but the Brits wanted to plant stories in England and around the world".

We need to know what MI6's role in this country is. Many of have naturally assumed that its activities have taken place abroad, but there are clear suggestions that it has been involved in disinformation campaigns on the UK mainland. Other newspaper reports, which I do not have time to refer to, suggest that the information operations unit has been planting favourable stories with friendly journalists and stories in other papers that are damaging to those who are critical of MI6's activities—or perhaps I should say of the Government's activities.

The other strand that I want to touch on in my last five minutes is the closeness of this country to the United States Administration. That has of course been a great strength to us over many years—indeed, since the second world war. The difference now is that the present US Administration are operating on a different basis of morality from that on which previous Administrations operated, up to and including the Clinton era. We have seen an abandonment of some of the norms of behaviour that the US introduced after the second world war with support from other western countries.

That is a matter for the US, except that too often it appears that UK foreign policy is merely a subset of US foreign policy. Nothing that has been overheard in conversations on microphones in recent days has done much to dispel that. For example, US foreign policy now appears to accept the principle of pre-emptive military action. Al Gore, the former vice-president, said that the doctrine would replace

"a world in which states consider themselves subject to law"

with

"the notion that there is no law but the discretion of the President of the United States."

That is his take, and he ought to know.

Again, in a sense that is a matter for the US, except if we follow that policy. As we indeed appear to follow US foreign policy quite slavishly, it is legitimate to ask the Minister whether other aspects of US foreign policy have been followed by the UK, through MI6. Can he tell me, for example, what the MI6's involvement in Guantanamo Bay has been? It is well documented that MI6 officials have been over there. What have they been doing? Have they made it plain to the US that Guantanamo Bay should be closed down or have they been following a different policy of accepting that it is there—whether or not we would have started it—and trying to deal with it as it is?

The US has also been involved in the horrors of Abu Ghraib. I hope very much that we would never endorse that sort of thing in any shape or form. We have heard allegations of extraordinary rendition, which the Intelligence and Security Committee is now looking into. I would be grateful if the Minister said something about that and whether we have had any involvement at all in extraordinary rendition, either directly or through connivance.

The US has offered support for regimes across the world that are questionable in morality terms—let me put it as neutrally as I can. The Minister will be aware of the publication about Uzbekistan by Craig Murray, the former ambassador, which suggests that there was torture, imprisonment and all sorts of human rights abuses that we did nothing about, mainly because we thought that we had a geopolitical interest in having the President there on board.

There is also the issue of legitimised assassinations. I refer the Minister to a report in The Guardian on 29 October 2001 that said:

"Bush gives green light to CIA for assassination of named terrorists",

overturning a 25-year ban on assassinations. That was referred to in a further report in The Guardian on 13 August 2002 that said:

"The US government is considering plans to send elite military units on missions to assassinate"

terrorists

"in countries around the world, without necessarily informing the governments involved, it was reported yesterday.

The Pentagon is discussing proposals which could see special operations units dispatched to capture or kill terrorists wherever they are believed to be hiding."

What is the Government's policy on that? Do we accept the truth of that report in The Guardian? If the Minister thinks that it is untrue, he can say so; if he thinks that it is true, what policy have we adopted on it? Are we informed by the Americans of what they are doing? Given the close relationship between the CIA and MI6, are we—horrible as it is to ask—in any way involved in such a policy?

I need to ask the Minister a number of questions. Will he publish the e-mails and other correspondence relating to John Scarlett's dealings with the ISG and the influencing of the report? Will the Minister set out the boundaries of action for MI6 in operating within this country, as opposed to operating abroad? Will he clarify the role of the information operations unit and whether it has been involved in briefing journalists and putting out information or disinformation to the British press in order to influence public opinion in this country? Will he confirm whether MI6 was in any way involved in extraordinary renditions? Does he have any knowledge at all of whether MI6 is involved in the apparent US policy of targeted assassinations in this country or elsewhere?

11:15 am
Photo of Kim Howells

Kim Howells (Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office; Pontypridd, Labour)

It is a great pleasure to serve under you, Mr. Conway—I do not think that we have had the pleasure before. I congratulate Norman Baker on securing this debate. I welcome the opportunity to set out the Government's position to the House and to reassure him of the integrity and professionalism of the United Kingdom intelligence services.

I am certainly to glad to hear the hon. Gentleman welcome the existence of MI6 or, as it normally called, the Secret Intelligence Service or SIS—I say that so that I can reply more quickly. As someone helping to co-ordinate the evacuation of thousands of very frightened people from Lebanon, I find it difficult to imagine how a safe evacuation could be carried out without high-quality intelligence from our intelligence services. That is literally a matter of life or death.

I have heard lots of names of journalists and newspapers from the hon. Gentleman. We all have our favourite journalists and favourite newspapers, but I would not expect some of them to write a good story about the Government this side of the next millennium.

The hon. Gentleman is right to note that the United Kingdom is close to the United States of America and that the UK intelligence services are close to their US opposite numbers. I am sure that the House expects nothing less. International co-operation is critical, especially in these times, when it comes to countering international terrorism. Our relationship with the United States is a mutually beneficial one that enables us to co-operate closely where our interests coincide and to discuss, debate and disagree privately where they differ.

However, any suggestion that the SIS is unquestioning in its relationship with the Americans—whether with the CIA or with anyone else—is to mistake the nature of that relationship. For obvious reasons, it is impossible to discuss the operations of the SIS or its co-operation with the CIA in detail, but I should like to set out its legally defined functions, since they are at the heart of what the hon. Gentleman asked me. I should also like to discuss the oversight mechanism, which I hope will offer him the reassurance that he seeks.

The SIS was placed on a statutory basis by the House in the Intelligence Services Act 1994, which was modified by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. The functions of the SIS as Britain's foreign intelligence service were set out in that legislation as follows:

"to obtain and provide information relating to the actions or intentions of persons outside the British Islands; and...to perform other tasks relating to the actions or intentions of such persons."

The Acts also stipulated that those functions should only be carried out by the SIS if they are

"in the interests of national security, with particular reference to the defence and foreign policies of Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom; or...in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom; or...in support of the prevention or detection of serious crime."

In order to ensure that the SIS carried out those functions and those functions only—it is important to remember this, as the hon. Gentleman has raised some interesting questions—the two Acts set up the following oversight mechanisms.

First, if the SIS wished to carry out an action that would be otherwise unlawful, it could apply for an authorisation to be issued by the Foreign Secretary. The authorisation may only be issued if the Foreign Secretary thinks it necessary for the discharge of the SIS's functions that a particular action is taken and is satisfied that the proposed action is proportionate and reasonable.

Secondly, the decisions of the Secretary of State to give authorisations are subject to the review of the Intelligence Services Commissioner who reports at least once a year to the Prime Minister, who in turn lays the commissioner's report before Parliament. The commissioner must be a person who holds, or has held, high judicial office and every member of the SIS is under a statutory duty to provide him with all the documents and information he needs to carry out his functions.

Thirdly, there is a tribunal of judges and senior lawyers with the power to investigate individuals' complaints against the SIS, make awards of compensation or, for example, quash or cancel any warrant or authorisation. If a complainant is dissatisfied with a decision of the tribunal, they may decide to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The operations of the SIS are therefore carried out within a strict statutory framework, overseen by the Foreign Secretary and scrutinised by members of the senior judiciary.

The hon. Gentleman has questioned the use of intelligence in the run-up to the war in Iraq, and the degree to which the agencies were happy with that use of intelligence. He has also raised concerns over the behaviour and the subsequent appointment of John Scarlett as chief of the Secret Intelligence Service.

I do not propose to revisit the exhaustive work carried out by Lord Butler of Brockwell, or the conclusions and recommendations of his report—no doubt that will be debated and discussed as long as the assassination of Kennedy—but I will highlight that, as noted by the Intelligence and Security Committee in its annual report, which was debated in the House as recently as 11 July, the Government have adopted Lord Butler's recommendations to improve both the validation of intelligence and the ability of dissenting voices to challenge conclusions based on that intelligence.

The SIS has also reorganised and strengthened staff responsible for the overall quality of intelligence and the process by which it is produced, and that is very important. Mechanisms have been put in place to ensure that senior officers in the Defence Intelligence Staff see all relevant information. A confidential guide on the nature, collection and use of intelligence has been produced for those who read and use it. Assessment boxes are included on the Joint Intelligence Committee's assessments papers to explain the limitations of the intelligence on which the assessment has reached its conclusions. I am appreciative of that, as it helps a great deal if we have an explanation of where intelligence has come from, how reliable it is likely to be and whether it can be corroborated from elsewhere. I think that is an important step forward.

A professional head of intelligence analysis has been appointed and is leading work on the training of analysts, and the JIC assessments staff have been expanded. Written dissent from JIC assessments can be included in the paper to which they refer, the JIC assessments staff have access to the Agencies' Staff Counsellor, and the DIS has a mechanism for expressing dissent within the Ministry of Defence.

The Intelligence and Security Committee welcomed these changes, and has said that it hopes that they

"will have a positive impact on decision-making at the highest level of the intelligence community."

I will now try to answer at least some of the hon. Gentleman's questions. I noted around 15 questions, but I will try to answer the most important.

First, the hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues about John Scarlett, or C as he is officially known. The former Foreign Secretary—now Leader of the House—appointed John Scarlett on the basis of recommendations he had received from a totally independent selection panel following standard Civil Service Commission practice. The process followed precisely the same pattern used to select similarly graded permanent secretaries. The key consideration was to appoint the best person for the job and on the advice of the selection board, the former Foreign Secretary concluded that John Scarlett was indeed the best candidate. The Prime Minister did not intervene in the selection process, but was consulted as it came to an end, when he gave his approval.

The SIS has made considerable progress since John Scarlett's appointment and steps that can be described publicly include the implementation of the recommendations of the Butler review—welcomed by the Intelligence and Security Committee—and the unprecedented move to open recruitment to enable the expansion necessary to counter terrorism, which was also welcomed by the ISC. The SIS has set up a new website and I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows the address, but I will tell him anyway: www.mi6.gov.uk.

On the SIS carrying out illegal operations, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the SIS is drawn from the ranks of the UK population. The staff therefore share the legal and human rights priorities of the UK as a whole and are trained to operate within the Acts that define the service's role. The SIS's compliance with legislation is clear from the reports of the commissioner that have been made over many years. In the extremely unlikely event that officers of the SIS attempted to carry out an operation that required the Secretary of State's authorisation without obtaining approval, they would be subject to the same liability in law as any other UK citizen. I welcome that and hope that the hon. Gentleman does too.

There are both internal and external systems in place to prevent unauthorised action. Internally, the SIS is structured in such a way as to prevent any person or group carrying out an illegal operation without it coming to the attention of officers who report directly to SIS's senior management. The SIS reports any errors in its oversight process to the Intelligence Services Commissioner, who includes them in his report to the Prime Minister. The right of access to SIS's records by the commissioner and the Investigatory Powers Tribunal means that any attempt to act independently of ministerial authorisation could be detected either as a result of a direct complaint or in the course of the commissioner's routine and regular scrutiny.

Infuriatingly, we are running out of time, but I want the hon. Gentleman to know that the Government are not involved in any form of torture in any way, nor do we condone torture, or tactics that undoubtedly were used at some stage in the past by people with whom we ally ourselves. I have made many visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, and I believe that nations are judged to be civilised and modern on the basis of how they treat not only their own citizens but the citizens of other countries. That means, at its most acute moment, how they treat those they have in custody, where they may be able to do things to people that they would not normally be able to. I want to make it clear that the Government are not involved in any of those activities whatever and that we would not for one moment allow such behaviour.

We have tried very hard to convince people, including the hon. Gentleman—who among others has quite properly tabled a number of questions on the subject—that we have never played a part in extraordinary rendition other than the examples that my right hon. Friend the former Foreign Secretary readily and openly gave to the House. The Government will continue to be open about extraordinary rendition and try to answer all questions properly.

Photo of Norman Baker

Norman Baker (Lewes, Liberal Democrat)

I am grateful for that statement, which is clear and very welcome. As we are running out of time and I asked a lot of questions, will the Minister do me the courtesy of replying in writing to those we have been unable to deal with?

Photo of Kim Howells

Kim Howells (Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office; Pontypridd, Labour)

I will certainly try to answer some of them, but I am aware that there are questions that could involve security issues, and I will need to check this. They also may involve an awful lot of work by our Department, and I am loth to say yes, I can answer all the questions. Perhaps, if the hon. Gentleman would be kind enough to drop me a line, I will consider the answers I can give.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o'clock.