MPs seek `spy master' for intelligence services

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Indy Politics
An all-party committee yesterday clashed with the Prime Minister over the threat to British spies caused by a Russian mole in the American Central Intelligence Agency.

The appointment of a ministerial "spy master" with responsibility for MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, the Government communications headquarters, was also raised by members of the committee as a possible solution to past failures properly to disseminate intelligence information around Whitehall.

The Security and Intelligence Committee, chaired by Tom King, a former Cabinet minister, warned that British agents' lives could have been lost after secrets were betrayed by Aldrich Ames, a CIA officer, and claimed that ministers had been inadequately briefed.

"We are seriously concerned over the extent and nature of the damage that has been done to British interests by the traitorous activities of the CIA officer Aldrich Ames," said the committee. It was also worried that "tainted" intelligence had been passed to ministers by agents compromised by Ames.

But John Major brushed aside the fears of the committee, which he set up. He said in a letter that after reviewing the evidence, "damage to the UK was not great" and he was satisfied that ministers "were adequately briefed". The Prime Minister added: "These are serious issues and I look forward to seeing your conclusions following your further investigations into these matters."

The committee complained in its annual report published yesterday that the British intelligence services had launched their own inquiry into the damage caused by the Ames affair in November 1995 - almost two years after his treachery was first exposed.

Archie Hamilton, a former defence minister and a member of the committee, said: "We are concerned that he was an extremely bad agent. He used to get drunk; he fell asleep in the office; he had an expensive car and a large house; nobody checked on this; he merely said his wife was very rich. It does cause great concern for anyone who has to look at the security organisation."

The committee reported that Ames had identified 13 CIA agents in Russia; nine were executed and three were imprisoned. "It is vital that all possible lessons are learnt on the security aspects of this case with the minimum of delay."

The report highlighted a failure in the present ministerial structure to have a proper overview of the security and intelligence services. The agencies reported to senior ministers who had other responsibilities.

Lord Howe, a former Foreign Secretary, said he had been given an overview of the intelligence and security services for the first time as a member of the committee, although MI6 and GCHQ had reported to him when he was a Cabinet minister.

Mr King said that no minister, with the exception of the Prime Minister, had an overview of the intelligence information being supplied by MI5, MI6 and GCHQ. In Germany, there was a minister with responsibility for the intelligence and security services.

The Prime Minister promised to improve the dissemination of intelligence information around Whitehall in the wake of the Scott report into the arms-to-Iraq affair.