Bugging: who knows what about it

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The Independent Online
THE ROW over the bugging of a royal conversation has thrown up questions about the precise role of the security services. We offer a plain person's guide.

Is the Home Secretary in a position to know whom MI5 has bugged?

Yes, he should be. Under the Interception of Communications Act 1985, he has to sign warrants for all phone taps and a Commissioner, Sir Thomas Bingham, produces a report each year on tapping. Rules laid down in 1966 by Harold Wilson's government state that there is to be 'no tapping of phones of MPs'. And, following assurances from Stella Rimington, director general of the security service, Downing Street states categorically that 'the security services do not bug the Royal Family'.

To whom is MI5 accountable?

To Parliament through the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister. In other words it's up to Ms Rimington to tell the Home Secretary what's going on.

What is to stop Ms Rimington simply fibbing to the Home Secretary?

There is no mechanism that we know of. However, government sources point out that for Ms Rimington, as for any other civil servant, lying to your minister can be a high-risk strategy.

Can members of the Cabinet find out what the security services are up to?

Several have some access to papers. In May 1992 the Government acknowledged the existence of a Cabinet sub-committee on the intelligence services, chaired by the Prime Minister. The members are the Home, Foreign and Defence Secretaries, (Kenneth Clarke, Douglas Hurd and Malcolm Rifkind) and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (William Waldegrave). The committee's remit is 'to keep under review policy on the security and intelligence services'. Downing Street will not say when the committee last met, whether it discussed the royal bugging saga or what sort of issues it usually debates.

What chance have MPs got to find out what's going on?

Very little. The Home Affairs Select Committee asked Ms Rimington to testify before them. She declined, but asked them to lunch instead.

Is MI5 thought to be doing a good job?

Whitehall is not particularly complimentary about MI5. Many of its reports are said to contain little which could not be gleaned from collating newspaper cuttings. The jury is out on its intelligence gathering against the IRA - a task which it took over last year from Special Branch. Some Whitehall officials have found MI5's work wanting; when it provided a list of Iraqis to be detained during the Gulf war, a number of those rounded up turned out to be exiled critics of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader.

Can you complain if you think you are being targeted?

Yes. The Security Service Act 1989 placed MI5 on a statutory footing, setting up a tribunal of three legal bigwigs to look into complaints. The Commissioner's report notes that last year there were 25 complaints, adding that 'no determination has been made in favour of the complainant'.

Is the Government happy with the situation?

John Major is the first Prime Minister to name the heads of the security services and wants to place MI6 on a statutory footing like MI5. A Bill to do this will almost certainly be included in the next Queen's Speech. Mr Major is keen to increase scrutiny, probably through a committee of Privy Councillors, rather than MPs, but the Cabinet has not yet agreed on this.

Could MI5 still get away with the sort of freelance bugging and burglary that Peter Wright describes in 'Spycatcher'?

The Security Service Act 1989 and the Interception of Communications Act 1985 have come into force since then, stipulating that warrants are needed for bugging, interception of mail or obtaining information from property (ie burglary). The international situation has changed and there is less paranoia about Communist or left-wing groups. But until there is a more convincing system of scrutiny, the answer is that we don't really know.

(Photographs omitted)

Lynn Barber, page 25