MI5 bids to take on drugs barons

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MI5 has launched an attempt to expand its operations into the fight against drugs after reviewing its future in the light of a probable reduction in counter-terrorist operations if peace holds in Northern Ireland.

After several months of speculation that Stella Rimington, the head of MI5, was contemplating a move into traditional criminal work, well-placed Whitehall sources have confirmed for the first time that the Security Service is seeking a role alongside thepolice and Customs and Excise in investigating drug trafficking.

Although the move would be controversial, particularly with the police and among civil rights lawyers, MI5 is regarded in Whitehall as having a well-deserved reputation for expertise in the use of computer technology for sifting complex evidence to detect money laundering and trafficking operations as well as undercover work.

Ministers are unlikely to reach a decision on the proposal until much later this year. If accepted, it would follow the widely acknowledged success of MI5 after its victory over the police in assuming the lead role in operations against the IRA.

The police service will fight any attempt by MI5 to take control of gathering information about drug trafficking and organised dealing. A senior police source said that they had been effectively "double crossed" by Mrs Rimington when MI5 took over responsibility from them for IRA intelligence gathering.

The source said: "We were assured that the Security Service was not interested in taking on that role and then weeks later it was announced that MI5 had been lobbying the Home Office in secret. Stella Rimington masterminded that takeover so we are extremely suspicious when she starts talking about working closer with the police."

But a move by MI5 into a new role against the drug trade would be be a much more far reaching change in its role, probably requiring legislation to redefine its stautory remit, first made public in the 1989 Security Service Act.

A Security Service source last night denied that an approach had been made to the Home Office. But other sources say that officials have been made aware of MI5's intentions and ministers are expected to receive advice on the issue from Ian Burns, head ofthe police department in the Home Office, who had a key role in recommending MI5's takeover of operations in Northern Ireland.

One key factor ministers will have to consider is whether the ceasefire by paramilitaries in Northern Ireland is sufficiently firmly based to allow a reduction of operations against them. At present MI5 has around 2,000 full time staff and an annual budget of £150m.

The police have argued that MI5 agents are not trained to collect information that could be presented in a criminal prosecution. Civil rights lawyers are concerned that MI5 personnel will insist on maintaining their anonymity during trials which could lead to miscarriages of justice. There is also deep concern about the service's lack of public accountability.

Mrs Rimington is likely to argue that MI5 has expertise in infiltrating large secret organisations. She can also point to the apparent unchecked rise in the supply of drugs and the growing international threat from South American drug barons using lax security in Eastern Europe to flood the West with narcotics.