MI5 chief goes public to clarify crime strategy

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

Stella Rimington, the head of MI5, yesterday spelt out the security service's credentials for its planned move onto the traditional policing territory of organised crime.

Speaking in London, she said the ease and speed of modern communications and travel, and the weakening of border controls, made it inevitable that organised crime, such as drug trafficking and money laundering, would continue to grow.

Countering the threat successfully would require similar methods to those employed in counter-terrorism, she said, detailing how MI5 had, for the past 25 years, co-ordinated intelligence work against both IRA and loyalist groups in Britain and Europe - with "rarely visible" success.

The Government has agreed to allow MI5 to expand its role into fighting organised crime, representing a victory for the MI5 director-general who, since the IRA cease-fire, has been negotiating for an anti-crime role for officers previously used on anti-terrorist work.

Mrs Rimington employs about 2,000 full-time staff and has an annual budget of pounds 150m.

Chief constables are understood to have agreed the move but are determined to restrict MI5 to a supporting role. Sir Paul Condon, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, said recently that there was great strength in exploiting the talents - and powers - of all agencies. But lawyers and civil rights campaigners are concerned about MI5's lack of public accountability and the culture of secrecy that engulfs the service.

Addressing the English Speaking Union last night, Mrs Rimington said that economic espionage, terrorism and the proliferation of mass-destruction weapons - as well as organised crime - were seen as the major threats to national security in the post-Cold War world. Increasingly, MI5 was forging links with other governments and their intelligence agencies to share information on mutual concerns such international terrorist activity.

But the new order also "created conditions which encourage the growth of... 'organised crime'," Mrs Rimington said. She added: "This phenomenon is comparatively new. In many countries, including the UK, its impact and seriousness are still being assessed."