Former MI5 chief defends intelligence service
Dealing with suicide bombers is a different world, says ex-spymaster
The former director general of MI5 has hit out at critics of Britain’s intelligence service, saying the threats of today are “worse and more complex” than ever.
Dame Stella Rimington, who oversaw MI5 in the mid-nineties, said that intelligence officers will always be subject to criticism in the days after a terror incident because the public rarely understands the huge difficulties of counter-terror operations.
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“When an incident happens, people are quick to blame and throw the whole thing up in the air," she said. "That is not the way to deal with security."
"People say to MI5: 'why were you not following around all these people who were on your radar? Why were they not on the top of your list?' You can't. In a democracy it would not be acceptable to have a security service so enormous to follow hundreds of people at all times."
"Intelligence officers are trying to manage these horrendous operations while remaining human beings with ordinary lives. People forget that."
Her comments came in the wake of Saturday’s attack at London Bridge by Islamist terrorists, the third of its kind in the UK in three months.
MI5 was criticised for not being able to prevent the attack despite admitting the attackers were on a watch-list for expressing radical views in the past.
Speaking at a forum in London dedicated to information security, Dame Stella explained that the rise of terrorism on British shores had accelerated the pace of intelligence work from the “slow process” days of the Cold War when counter-espionage was the main activity.
However, with prominent voices calling for a “radical change” to how MI5 operates, she urged caution: “Change is constant. But the key thing is, it that it has to be carefully managed. It should not be rushed.”
Underlying the need for a measured response, she reflected on her own career and having to inform then-Prime Minister John Major of impending IRA attacks with no details on locations, targets or timing.
“His response would be to lean back in his chair, close his eyes and say ‘Stella – do your best.’ And that was exactly the right thing for him to say. A lesser man would have [lost his cool]. But we did our best. And very frequently, those bombs did not go off."
But asked whether lessons from the IRA peace process could be applied to the present-day terrorist situation, Dame Stella said she did not believe negotiations would be at all possible.
“Because we successfully infiltrated the IRA, they realised their campaign was not going to succeed and it was therefore time for a political solution. Islamic State are not people who are ready for any coherent discussion or debate. Their ideology is that they want to kill everybody.”
Questions over whether the intelligence services could have done more to prevent this latest attack are impossible to answer as most information into their investigations remains classified, but it is just as impossible to know exactly how many similar attacks have so far been prevented thanks to the work of the intelligence services. The UK’s most senior counter-terror officer recently claimed more than a dozen have been foiled since June 2013.
Regardless of who wins this week’s general election, those governing the country in the coming years will be under huge public pressure to readdress cuts to the number of police officers and to assess the speed and integration of intelligence gathering. Likewise, reassessment of around 3,000 people on MI5’s terror watch-list will also be high on the agenda.
This is where industry can step in. Demand for vast volumes of data is now outweighed by the demand for efficient and persistent data analysis, with calls for innovative technologies and expertise to close the gap. The likes of artificial intelligence, machine-learning and cyber forensics all have a critical part to play, as does the need for skilled personnel in this field.
As Dame Stella was keen to point out in her talk, security services are relying on industry professionals "to be able to produce sensible solutions to these problems".
In contrast to the intelligence services, armed police responders have been praised for their fast reaction time, eliminating the attackers within eight minutes of the first emergency call.
Training of police and emergency response teams will also be high importance in the coming months. In March, only days before the attack at Westminster, hundreds of Met Police officers undertook a counter-terror exercise on the Thames, within view of the public. More drills will no doubt be welcomed – and visibility of these exercises will form part of the strategy for public reassurance. Those providing progressive, cost-effective solutions for the training component should be given every opportunity to demonstrate their benefit.
Funding of medical services will be under similar review with emphasis on ensuring paramedics can treat trauma victims within the all-important ‘golden hour’. The government will be pressured to guarantee that any downturn in funding of the health service will not impact the response to terror-related scenarios in the future.