BOOK REVIEW / New ways to play I-Spy: 'The Silent Conspiracy: Inside the Intelligence Services in the 1990s' - Stephen Dorril: Heinemann, 16.99

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STEPHEN DORRIL has a conspiratorial view of Britain's secret services. The frightening thing is that he is probably right. Deprived of its Cold War function, desperate for a new role to justify its expensive existence, our secret world, he says, has turned inwards and is busy spying on us all.

Our telephones are tapped, our letters opened, our boardrooms and bedrooms bugged. GCHQ, the government listening-post at Cheltenham, routinely spies on companies, trade unions, environmental groups, charities such as Christian Aid and Amnesty International, peace campaigners and individuals. If the secret services cannot do this legally - with warrants - then they simply sub-contract the work to someone in the burgeoning private surveillance sector, who, if discovered, can be denied and disowned.

And these are only the nuts and bolts. At the strategic level, the spies (MI6) and spy-catchers (MI5), are busy planting smears to destroy their enemies, courting newspaper editors so as to get a favourable press, lobbying civil servants for more turf and more money, planning operations against friendly countries and plotting against each other. If some of Dorril's sources are to be believed, then our secret services are also embroiled in the arms trade.

Dorril makes a case that the affair of Matrix Churchill, the Coventry-based tool-making firm, two of whose directors were spying for MI6 in Iraq, was only a glimpse of a much bigger scandal. Britain is the third largest arms exporter in the world, with sales worth at least pounds 3 billion a year. More than 600,000 people are employed in defence-related industries, and if anything were to happen to our arms business it would be a major blow to our economy. So it makes sense to our rulers to use our secret services to facilitate this arms trade. And it makes sense to these services to go along with this, because it gives them a new justification for their existence and a chance to preserve their budgets and personnel.

Anyway, they would argue, everybody's doing it. A French secret service officer was expelled from Delhi after giving a French arms salesman details of a competing British bid. French officers in Britain and the United States receive 'shopping lists' of commercial and industrial secrets they are to try to steal. The Americans get their own back by using CIA briefing papers on the negotiating position of the French and British representatives at Gatt and other trade talks. The Bank of England receives weekly assessments of the world economic and trading situation from the Joint Intelligence Committee, and GCHQ eavesdrops on commercial satellites for intelligence on the commodities market which it then passes to big British companies like BP and ICI.

These are just a few of the book's examples of the secret world's infiltration. What worries Dorril is that it means enormous power with little accountability. Despite Mr Major's efforts to bring MI6 out of the closet - his government at least admits that MI6 exists - and the cosy briefings that the head of MI5, Stella Rimington, gives to selected journalists, our secret services remain largely a law unto themselves.

Any suggestion that they should be under the control of our elected representatives, through a Commons Select Committee, meets with muted howls of protest. Yet honest CIA officers would say that the American 'Oversight' system works well and has turned the CIA into a better service. We should have a campaign to force the British secret services to accept Oversight. This long but engrossing book could well be the launching-pad.