Should we keep our secrets?

The American approach satisfied the right to know and allows for the correction of mistakes

WHAT RECORDS should the Security Service, or MI5 as it is often called, keep for eventual release into the public domain? This question, important on constitutional grounds as well as historical, is being looked at afresh by a committee of which I am a member.

Actually we have a rather grand title: the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Council on Public Records. Our normal task is to police the working of the "30-year Rule" under which government records are made available for inspection at the Public Record Office when they are 30 years old.

Now we have been asked by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, to review the criteria which the Service currently applies in deciding whether files which would otherwise be destroyed should be kept on grounds of historical significance. We would welcome submissions from those with an interest in the subject; it is important to know what people think.

The point about MI5 is that it works primarily in the United Kingdom. Its current work is to investigate terrorism (especially in Northern Ireland), to protect the UK against espionage by foreign intelligence agencies, to help counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and to support the police in the fight against serious crime. However, the part of its remit that raises the most acute problems for the historic record has been its work against so-called subversive organisations of the extreme left or extreme right which, often working behind a respectable facade, were thought to be trying to undermine parliamentary democracy.

This accounted for a major part of the Security Service's activities between 1948, the start of the Cold War, and 1990 when the Soviet Union collapsed. That is why, although anti-subversion work is no longer undertaken, the service holds 290,000 files relating to individuals, among them it is supposed, folders for "Straw, Jack: president of the National Union of Students" and "Mandelson, Peter: trades union official".

The first problem which confronts us is the service's instinctive reluctance to put anything at all into the public domain. Thus the only files which are available at the Public Record Office cover the period from its foundation in 1909 to 1919.

They are, apparently, very bland. However by the millennium it is hoped that material covering the inter-war years and the Second World War will have been released. In short, MI5 will have improved from keeping its files closed for 80 years to a mere 55 years.

Moreover, the service periodically destroys files on a massive scale. This happened following both world wars and again in the early 1990s. The result is that it has preserved about 60 per cent of its records, whereas the Foreign Office, for instance, keeps about 80 per cent of its files and the Cabinet Office and 10 Downing Street retain almost everything. The saving grace is that MI5 has at least preserved its registers, so it will be possible one day to know what was once available if now lost.

The Advisory Council will have to evaluate MI5's arguments for non-disclosure. Like all intelligence services, it feels an absolute duty to protect the identity of its agents or informers. And it sees this duty as extending for long after the agent has ceased working for the Service and possibly after his or her death if family members remain vulnerable. For operational reasons, it keeps the identities of its staff secret, except that in recent years the name of the director general has been published.

It also argues that premature release can put innocent people in a dubious light. And it wants to keep its techniques under wraps because suspects are generally unaware, even if they assume that they are being watched, of how unwittingly they let slip incriminating information. Espionage is like archaeology, putting together fragments to form an impression of the whole.

The question for us is whether these perfectly reasonable considerations are being applied too cautiously in relation to the purpose of disclosure, which is to allow historians and members of the public to understand in a reasonably timely way how the organisation was managed, financed, structured and operated; how it influenced and was influenced by the social, economic and physical culture of which it was part; how decisions were taken and what those decisions were and how they were applied.

The second big question is what retention and disclosure policy is appropriate for the service's huge holding of files on British people, on us. There is substantial and justifiable interest in the interaction between a secret service and the citizen; equally, however, it is scarcely conceivable that personal files could be released during the lifetime of the subject.

Of the 290,000 personal files extant, all but 20,000 of them are closed in the sense that while Security Service officers may consult them, no further enquiries are undertaken on their subjects. Many of these will contain limited information - that "X" is or was a member of, say, the Communist Party together with the proof. No further action will have been taken and there will be thus no private or intrusive information on the file.

There are two ways to go. There is the example of the United States where you may apply to a "freedom of information" officer at the FBI or CIA and ask whether there is a file on you. Subject to safeguards for current investigations, you will be told "yes" or "no" and if the answer is "yes" you will be informed how many pages it comprises, how much is classified and how much you may examine if you so desire. And there is a right of appeal to see the classified material. This approach has two virtues - it satisfies a democratic right to know whether there is a file and it allows for the correction of mistakes and misapprehensions.

The alternative way is to ask what should be known of MI5's investigation of UK citizens from the point of view of the historic record. On whom did the service have files? What sort of people were targets? How did it operate against those targets? What did the files contain? Was the information accurate? What did the service do with what it learnt?

Then, having established the questions, the next consideration would be whether keeping a sample of files would be sufficient to enable authoritative answers to be given. If the answer were in the affirmative, then a policy, perhaps less haphazard than the present arrangements, albeit opposite to the American system, could be proposed.

So far as personal files are concerned, they would only be kept for operational reasons, or for the historic record, or for meeting complaints made to the Security Service Tribunal. If none of these considerations pertained, then the file would be destroyed.

In other words, the argument here is that destruction may be a safeguard for individual liberties. That is perhaps the most difficult question which the Advisory Council, sitting under the chairmanship of the Master of the Rolls, Lord Woolf, will have to decide.

Submissions should be made as soon as possible to Tim Padfield, Secretary of the Advisory Council on Public Records, Public Record Office, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
Arts and Entertainment
The episode saw the surprise return of shifty caravan owner Susan Wright, played by a Pauline Quirke (ITV)

Review: Broadchurch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo are teaming up for a Hurricane Katrina drama

film
Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore