They're our hidden leaders; they have power, they have responsibility and they're colossally successful. But they lack a public profile - except when things go wrong. This new series of studies of Britain's unseen establishment begins with the affable John Grieve, controversial head of Criminal Intelligence at New Scotland Yard
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.DIRECTOR of Criminal Intel-ligence: it's a title with an aura. An aura of derring-do; an aura of the police state; and an aura of mystery even within the Metropolitan Police itself.

Most of the Met's officers have just about heard of the man who currently holds the position, but few come across him, and only the very highest officers have an understanding of the delicate nature of Commander John Grieve's job.

To get to his department, high up in New Scotland Yard, you must go through a security door at which a young Detective Constable looks you over. Then you pass down a corridor of open doors through which you see men and women dressed in civilian clothes, busy on unidentifiable investigations, heads pressed to telephones or communing with computers. They could be any offices, except for the occasional glimpse you get of unusual equipment or of pictures of guns pinned to the wall. We stop by one room to announce our arrival. While we wait, my guide asks an officer how he is: "Overworked, underpaid, unloved and unappreciated," he replies. The other officers in the room do not smile.

This is SO11, as the Met's Department of Criminal Intelligence is known internally. There are some 30 disciplines employed here - surveillance specialists, data analysts, immigration experts, weapons folk - but the exact number of people on Commander Grieve's staff is secret, as is the precise nature of their investigations. It is safe to assume, however, that these are related to drugs, corruption, the movements of international criminals and the operation of London gangs. The men under Grieve's command form an elite; they use the most sophisticated technology to collate information, watch criminals and try to tease out new patterns in crime - who is talking to whom, how the men from Jamaica, Colombia and Turkey are planning to distribute their merchandise; they mount London-wide campaigns against street-robbery and house break-ins; they often work undercover, they pay informants, and, most controversially, attempt "to turn" some of the most dangerous criminals on the capital's streets. Above all, their job is to take the fight to the criminal and to calculate the probabilities that separate what might from what will happen.

Their commander is a surprisingly open boss: extremely well-read, affable, and alert to the broadest implications of what he does. He is a big man with a rapid, associative mind, the contents of which he is ever-ready to display. He pulls threads together and, at the drop of helmet, produces quotations from Beckett, Dostoyevksy, Cormac McCarthy and Nap-oleon's chief of intelligence, Joseph Fouche. On his office wall, there is a reproduction of a quotation from Sun Tzu, a Chinese philosopher of the fourth century BC, which seems to have a broader message: "Only those who are sagacious and wise can successfully use intelligence. Only those who are benevolent and just can direct and manage informers. Only those who are detailed and subtle can obtain and decipher the truth in intelligence."

Wise, benevolent, subtle, just - these are the qualities one might hope to find in our hidden leaders, the people who wield enormous influence in British society and yet go more or less unnoticed by the media. This is not to say that they are publicity-shy or engaged on secret work (as Commander Grieve is); just that their roles are not susceptible to the celebrity circus and that they exercise influence in a way not instantaneously grasped by the media. The tumult and the shouting tend to be concentrated on those who thrust themselves forward or who want to be elected.

Commander John Gilbert Grieve BA Hons M Phil is by any standards a classic member of this group. He is little known outside police circles; bears large responsibilities; and, although it was never his aim, he exercises a good deal of power. He has risen swiftly in the police force to take over SO11 two-and-half years ago. In those 30 months it is said that his original and effusive approach has done as much to sharpen criminal intelligence as had been achieved in the previous 30 years. He starts his working day very early, partly from a habit acquired when he used to rise at 4.30am for Flying Squad briefings (the squad likes to carry out its raids at 5.30am), but also because he cannot wait to move into the day. His mind churns all night, and he often writes ideas down when he wakes, which he says is his most creative moment of the day. These are held in a rolling list of things he "wants to revisit" during the week. A car and driver go with the job, and so on the way to New Scotland Yard he is able do more thinking and scribbling. By the time he enters his department, he is overflowing with ideas and suggestions which are thrown at anyone he happens to meet on his way to his office. "They usually pick them up and make much more of them," he said, "but some days they don't get as much out of me as they should."

For the next 12 to 14 hours he oscillates between agitation and cogitation. On Saturdays, he generally finishes at noon in order to go to his art class - Commander Grieve is a watercolourist and believes in looking after both hemispheres of the brain; in fact, he thinks it essential to his police work. (He likes poetry, too, and has been known to attend readings on National Poetry Day.)

In some ways, he seems to be too rounded to be true, like an invention of Lynda La Plante's or Colin Dexter's, a character so formulated from a set of unlikely quirks that you don't at first see the police officer and the drive it has taken for him to become the country's top detective at the age of 49. The problems that land on Grieve's desk are the worst that our society has to offer and, now that there has been more than a year of peace in Northern Ireland, certainly the most threatening. Indeed, the peace process is much on his mind at present, for it is the absorption of Grieve's operation, together with NCIS (the National Criminal Intelligence Service), that forms the very large share of Stella Rimington's remaining ambitions at MI5.

The Director of MI5 is keen to ensure her department's survival after her retirement, and an expansion into criminal intelligence seems the best solution, although police officers and spies - or counter-spies - are very different types of people. So Grieve has not only the operation of his own department to look after, but faces a complex and discreet political battle over the coming months. Great principles like accountability are at stake, and much depends on the way his department handles itself. That, incidentally, is the other thing about power: there is always someone in the background trying to take it away.

FROM THE AGE of 11, Grieve always knew what he wanted to do, although there was no history of police work in his family. He was born in Gosforth, near Newcastle, the son of a professional couple who brought him up in rural Yorkshire. Today, there is absolutely no hint of a middle-class background, and little trace of a Yorkshire accent. He speaks a rapid southern English that tends to trail off at the end of the sentence. In fact, when giving evidence in court, Grieve has been asked by judges to speak up.

It was at Ashville College, Harrogate, a Non-Conformist private school, that he developed a passion for books about the police - the memoirs of the pathologist Keith Simpson, Edgar Lustgarten's tales from Scotland Yard and so forth. He was, too, strongly attracted to painting, but at a careers' talk he found himself saying that he could only consider being a detective. At first, despite his nine O-Levels and three A-levels, he was rejected by the police force - eyesight - and found himself working on the roads as a navvy for a year before re-applying. Then, at his first posting, in Clapham, in south-west London, he discovered things to be different from the books he had read.

"I don't think you get any inkling whatsoever from those books; they conceal much more than they actually disclose. As for training, the police had some fairly strange ideas; they wanted you to repeat whole chunks of what were called 'A' reports . Having said that, those 'A' reports managed to re-create a number of things which you become very familiar with - arresting drunks, sudden deaths, breaking bad news. Actually, it all happened within the first six months I went to Clapham, which is as far as you can get from a middle-class Yorkshire Moors upbringing, and I found the single most important factor was the team of uniformed officers I worked with. In accepting me, they trained me to act in increasingly difficult situations. You see, you could walk round for 30 years without experiencing anything."

What he means by this is that a new recruit has to be liked to get on in the police force. If those first six months don't work for an officer, he or she probably won't make it. But Grieve also had flair, best summed up as a combination of curiosity, lateral agility and shrewdness. He was soon absorbed into the detective force and, by the early Seventies, was on the Drug Squad, tracking the misdemeanours of his counter-cultural contemporaries: there are plenty of now-respectable media figures who were stopped and searched for acid and marijuana by John Grieve in their wilder days; at the time, they say, he looked exactly like any other street hippy with his long hair, scruffy jeans, windbreaker and plimsolls. He shared some, if not all, of their tastes and is still a fan of the Rolling Stones, Bob Marley and Eric Clapton, all them at one time substance abusers. He ran a clean ship, but this was a time of open distrust between Customs and the drug squad, with the former believing - with justification - that some of the police were corrupt.

Drugs, and their corrosive effects, became a speciality, perhaps an obsession, but Grieve also worked in the Flying Squad and on murder investigations, and has done his time in uniformed commands around the Metropolitan area. (In 1979, the police sent him to Durham University, where he read Philosophy and Psychology, a choice he disguised from his senior officers until the last moment; he took his M Phil at Cranfield.) When I asked him what was the most destructive force in British society, he answered without hesitation that it was drugs and poverty, the latter being responsible for a great despair and acting as a catalytic agent to the former. As a policeman, it is the drugs problem that he is concerned with and the insidious effect it has on other areas of crime. "I would single out drugs because it has great moral dilemmas and presents us with the most acute intellectual challenges - the use by criminals of banking systems for money laundering, the worldwide influence of drug smugglers. It is a social problem of such complexity. Every answer has a big down side."

Among those answers is legalisation, and Grieve has had his fingers burnt by musing on this. (In May 1993, he urged the Association of Chief Police Officers to "think the unthinkable", and to consider the licencing of some drug dealers.) "I teeter between being acceptable and being a maverick. I am out of the debate at the moment because I want to be supportive of the present strategy [that is, nailing dealers and trying to track their supply lines]. But one of the things that should be made clear in the legalisation argument is that legalisation can mean that people live their lives with their minds blown out by drugs - the sort of effect you see in the hill tribes of Thailand.

"What has changed the complexion of crime is the money generated by drugs. It drains down into everyone's lives. We say it is probably only seven handshakes from the street deal to the highest level of criminality and the violence associated with the recovery of debts. The violence bleeds into society." (Grieve once said that "You are more likely to be offered drugs for the first time by a member of the family or a close friend than by the archetypal stranger at the school gates. When parents demand we arrest the dealers, it is their own children they are referring to.")

When Grieve was appointed to SO11, he was told by a senior officer to be "lawfully audacious". He took the first word to heart. Without my prompting, he brought up the Porn and Drug Squad scandals of the Seventies and Operation Countryman, that era's investigation into corruption in the Met, all of them immensely damaging to the reputation of the police. He agonises about this: "There is a lot of thinking about what moral risks there are. Dostoyevsky explored it, so did Ruth Rendell, and there was a Commanding Officer called Jim Barnett who wrote a series of novels after he retired - he said we let police officers loose into a moral minefield. So when I went to university I used my thesis to tease out what the issues were. By that time, I was in my mid-thirties and I had been in the Drug Squad and I knew all the players in the Porn Squad scandal. I came back for the second big Drug Squad scandal and for Countryman."

I said that these scandals did not seem to be exactly the topic of the moment. Why did they weigh so heavily on him?

"Maybe I am peculiarly sensitive," he said, "but you see we have just got through a whole series of problems about informers who turned out - surprise, surprise - to be criminals who were still committing crimes. In a court of law, the defence says there is more to it than that. I am not saying that the problems are still the same as they were; I am saying that if you lived through that period you are very conscious of that aspect." Grieve, of course, was referring to to the SO11 operation to protect Eaton Green, a Jamaican/Yardie informer who is now serving six years for his involvement in the hold-up and robbery of a blues party of 150 people in Nottingham. Green had been a valuable informer, but had also continued to sell crack cocaine, carry weapons and commit robbery; during the Nottingham robbery, he had shot a man in the leg. He was arrested by the Nottingham police and eventually brought to trial; SO11, apparently, failed to let them know that Green was an informant. And during the trial, it seems, there were high level attempts by SO11 to have the prosecution aborted and to protect their informant. The issues were argued out at a series of meetings involving the Yard, the Attorney General, and the Director of Public Prosecutions. It has been reported that the Yard only accepted that their informer be disclosed after both the DPP and the Attorney General ruled against them.

The case has caused serious allegations to be made about SO11's methods. Commander Grieve's response is robust: "Criminals involved in some parts of drug-related violence are paranoid, treacherous, violent and unstable. It is an unstructured and chaotic environment. They operate in a culture which is different from other cultures and which is more difficult to penetrate." He points to the rise in drug-related violence: 12 murders already this year and 20 attempted murders. "It's impossible to tackle serious crime of this nature without the use of informants," he went on, " and it is no surprise that people like Eaton Green operate in this group of criminals. If they didn't have that sort of background, they wouldn't be accepted." As for SO11's handling of Green after his arrest, "We apologised when all the information didn't reach all those who needed it at the right time and in the right format."

Grieve seems not so much to analyse problems as to maul them. Certainly he is not one for ducking issues. Less attractively, he has a singular love of management speak; there are many "matrices" and "learning contracts" in his conversation. He tries hard throughout the day, he says, to remember "to create a vision" , "to show his commitment", "to care for his staff", "to celebrate success", and "to summon what charisma" is available to him. These are headings from the "Seven Cs" of Bill Peace, the former Head of United Technologies, whose management style Grieve greatly admires. "The other thing he tells you is not to take yourself too seriously. You need a court jester - someone with the power to bang you over the head with a stick with a horse's head handle and say that you are being a prat."

GRIEVE SERVED for a time as Commander of Training and before that as a uniformed inspector, but the greater part of his career has been as a detective - in 1976, he was commended for his courage and ability in smashing a Triad drugs gang. He served on the Flying Squad as a Detective Sergeant, as Detective Inspector in Notting Hill, as Detective Chief Inspector on the Central Drug Squad, and in the east London murder squad.

What is interesting is that this unswerving climb has been achieved by a man who seems to focus on so many things at one time, commuting from Modern Literature via Monet to the Met. He has a flightly way of talking: one idea suggests another, and when I transcribed our conversations I realised that two or three tracks of thought compete with each other at the same time, which doesn't always make for clarity.

His interests are so wide - philosophy, painting, rock music, walking, history of art - that I wondered how he had time for home life, but this subject is off limits; Grieve releases no details about his family for security reasons. I did gather, though, that he has a grown-up son who introduced him to Cormac McCarthy's books. He also has a wide group of friends: "Some of my very close friends are with the police, but some are outsiders because I find it necessary. I need a network to check things out. There is a tight group of people I can speak to when I am at my wits' end at one in the morning."

I asked him how much character counted as police officer. "Well, it counts as it does in everyone's job. But I would say that the big issue for the police is integrity, because the temptations are so huge. I think that's why police officers pose such an interest for novelists and television writers. The choices are so stark, and when we fall we make such a mess of it. I wouldn't want it to be any different. I wouldn't want people to be less unforgiving than they are. But it is true that other professions are allowed to make mistakes; I mean, in the police, Churchill would not have survived Gallipoli."

He takes great pleasure from good police work, experiencing the same satisfaction he must have derived as a small boy when he read the crime books he borrowed from the library - a library, incidentally, that he has largely re-created in his own home by scouring secondhand bookstalls. He told me a story of a murder investigation he conducted in the Eighties. The victim cannot be identified, but the inquiry involved a small-time fraudster who had gone missing. "This guy is a little local criminal and turns out to be a really nice guy - you wished you had met him before his death. Nearly everyone said to us that he had gone missing because he was wanted by us for some minor crimes, but there was this buzz that he had upset some people and been murdered. I said, let's try to confirm or deny that he is dead."

Grieve sent out his team to interview all the known faces in the East End. At one criminal's place, stolen property and guns were found, and the man was persuaded to tell Grieve's team that the missing man had indeed been murdered and was buried in a wood. "So we had 36 hours under the Police and Criminal Evidence rules. We loaded him into a car and found the wood. It was literally at sunset, practically in the 36th hour, that they found the grave."

There were still problems of identification - the head and hands had been removed before burial. But the police knew that the victim had had back trouble and managed to locate his X-rays in hospital files, even though he had been treated under an assumed name. These were then matched to the victim's spine. But the clinching piece of evidence came from a sand-pit where they knew that the victim's clothes had been burnt. In the remains of a leather jacket, discarded 18 months before, they discovered a piece of newspaper from the time of the murder. They also found a key which they tried in the front door of the victim's home. It didn't fit. Then a member of the dead man's family remembered that he had had the locks changed and that the old lock had been thrown into the back of a garage. Amazingly, it was found behind a chest of drawers. A young constable inserted the key, and the action of the lock yielded.

This was the clear evidence the police needed, but when the trial came to court, they failed to get a murder conviction. "You can draw your own conclusions as to whether someone with his head and hands cut off, buried in a secret grave in a wood, 8ft down, was a murder or manslaughter victim. The Jury said it was manslaughter and I am a great respecter of the Jury system," he said drily. It was the only time he seemed remotely fierce.

Evidence is everything in court, and it has to be immensely durable to withstand scrutiny. The police are used to this process and certainly SO11 has always to consider the requirements of proof. It is not enough to know what is going on without being able to prove it, and that is perhaps the main deficiency in MI5's case for taking a greater role in the organisation of Britain's criminal intelligence operations. "Evidence, by definition," Grieve says, "has to be open. You can't have secret evidence in court, and this leads you into problems when you consider other agencies. There may be things I wish to protect, but we don't have secret evidence, secret tribunals and Star Chambers."

Other than Mrs Rimington's recent lectures, MI5 has no practice of explaining itself; I asked whether there was a danger that it might introduce a culture of secrecy into the criminal justice system. "I would share your concern," said Grieve. "We try to be accountable by explanation to a whole range of communities: to local communities because if you switch them off you're finished; to Parliament because they can pass laws that stuff you; and to the courts because they won't accept your evidence. Criminal intelligence has many similarities to general intelligence, but in creating new agencies you have to find models of accountability. It is a debate I was keen to get into early so that people can't say afterwards that they didn't know - that this has been Big Brother working.

"I'm very interested in the history of intelligence. You know, Fouche said that if you saw three people talking on the street, one of them worked for him. He was also the man who, when someone was executed and people said to him, 'Don't you think that was a crime?', replied 'It was worse than a crime; it was a mistake.' So, you need to be very careful about having an accountable secret police.

"But, all that said, it's important that the message from us is that we aren't doing so well that we can't ignore help. The level of threat has risen; the sheer scale of what's going on means that we need assistance. We have learnt from other Intelligence agencies and from history. I use the Battle of Atlantic in my training lectures; you've got barely 70 U- boats deployed, but the whole of the Atlantic in which they're deployed. We have a comparably small number of criminals who probably account for 80 per cent of the crime; it's all about an intelligence system that can get the information about the enemy and seek them out."

His other, equally improbable, model is General Crooks's campaign against the Apaches. "There were 15,000 people at one stage trying to find 38 effectives (led by Geronimo). The 1882 campaign was a classic intelligence operation; he began to use all the models: informers, interception of communications, tracking reconnaisance and analysis. And he used Apaches to hunt down Apaches."

Grieve's department uses exactly the same techniques, but they have to be nimble to meet new threats. Surveillance of drug dealers from abroad, for instance, has been complicated by the tight organisation of the Turkish gangs who both circulate their personnel around European capitals, changing identities at each move, and have a menacing hold on their operatives whose families remain unprotected back in Turkey. They are, therefore, almost impossible to turn. No doubt Fouche would have found a way.

Being shown round SO11, one gets an idea of the sophistication of Grieve's operation and of the surveillance systems that log the movements of drug dealers and keep a running profile of their lives - information about addresses, girlfriends, drinking haunts, which pours in from the intelligence cells in every police station in London. It is always difficult to measure the success of such operations; by their nature, they often have no climax. But there are good signs: the Jamaican gangs, for instance, have not found London the easy place in which to operate that they expected. The retention of knowledge and building of records is getting better at Scotland Yard but, according to Grieve, it is still not good enough. "We are unlike the military, who bring in historians to study set-piece battles. They have long periods for reflection between the set-pieces; ours is a continual war, although I don't like the expression because we are not a profession of arms. Ours is more like a craftsman's job; it's about seeing things other craftsmen have made, and thinking how to apply them to these unique conditions of ours in the late Nineties."

And what conditions: drugs, corruption, violence, the ever-increasing sophistication of criminals; these are the problems that confront Grieve. Yet he is hopeful, and there is one factor above all that makes him hopeful: "Oh, it's definitely education," he says, lifting from his chair, pulling at his braces and in the process reminding me of one of those irrepressible Open University lecturers you stumble across on late-night television. "The way I find people are taking responsibility for their own education. All age groups - people who leave school at 16, people who come into the police force, people making learning contracts with themselves, people using both sides of the brain - God bless my art teacher, God bless my life class." !