Paradoxically, the ending of the Cold War has not seen a reduction in either personnel or budget. Instead, MI6, as the service is more commonly known, has been adapting its role and structure in an attempt to justify its existence in the post-Cold War world. The head of MI6, Sir Colin McColl, is staying on past his 60th birthday to oversee new legislation to put the service on a statutory basis for the first time in its 80-year history; and at the beginning of 1994 MI6 is due to move into new headquarters (which have cost pounds 240m so far) at Vauxhall Cross in south London.
Realistically, governments of all political persuasions will continue their information-gathering activities. But some of the areas into which MI6 is moving have little to do with traditional conceptions of intelligence work. It looks suspiciously like diversification for its own sake. The questions that must be asked are: is MI6's pounds 300m annual budget still justifiable? And do we really still need a secret agency? The answer to both is probably no.
MI6 has been adept at identifying new directions for the Nineties. Foreign Office fears that the United States will eventually withdraw its forces from Western Europe have led to closer co-operation with French and German intelligence services. The service has set up a directorate to handle counter-terrorism, even though terrorism worldwide is in a sharp decline. More resources have been made available to cover weapons of mass destruction and a working party has been set up to monitor countries acquiring low-cost tactical ballistic missiles.
More off the beaten track, MI6 has also apparently taken to reporting on worldwide environmental pollution, including the destruction of the rainforest. A counter-narcotics section, which also studies and investigates money laundering, has moved the service into criminal work.
UK military strategists, whose lead MI6 follows, have begun to see the post-Cold War world as an era of North-South confrontation, requiring action to counter future Third World threats to Western economic interests. The new intelligence target is described as 'that swirling pot of poison made up of zealots, crazies, drug-runners and terrorists'.
The service has become concerned about the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East and Africa, and the possibility of an 'Islamic bomb'. In particular, MI6 has targeted Algeria, fearing that a country which has received nuclear expertise and technology from China might pose a threat to Europe's southern flank. While some of these fears may be genuine, even at their most extreme they are not to be compared with the nuclear arsenal of the old Soviet Union and the balance of terror that existed during the Cold War.
It is, of course, in the interests of MI6 to play up post-Cold War threats to stability - 'militant' emigration, narco-terrorists, eco-terrorists, and so on. Yet, just as we discovered at the end of the Cold War that many of the threats generated by the intelligence services in the previous four decades had been exaggerated or even manufactured, we may find at the end of this decade that today's fears were similarly unwarranted.
Hopefully, we can avoid that situation. During the Cold War attitudes were rigid and debate was curtailed by an overriding desire for secrecy. However, changes are taking place that provide, I believe, an opportunity to discuss the role, control and oversight of agencies such as MI6.
A model might be the forerunner of the CIA, the Office of Strategic Studies, Research and Analysis branch, where academics, scientists, economists and specialists presented reports on countries and specific areas of interest. An analysis branch could operate as an open agency, delivering reports on anything from oil to nuclear proliferation on behalf of government and the commercial market.
The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service demonstrated the possibilities of such an approach when, in February this year, it released a 118-page report on arms development from Chile to Korea, described by analysts as 'the most comprehensive report on the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons ever issued'.
This would leave the thorny problem of covert action, which may include anything from assassination to rigging elections. During Margaret Thatcher's time, as the payback for help over the Falklands war, MI6 was instructed to co-operate with the CIA in an aggressive campaign of covert action in Afghanistan, South Yemen and Cambodia. In a number of operations, MI6 even took the lead, as Congressional inquiries curtailed some of the CIA's more unsavoury activities.
It is unrealistic to believe that any government would be willing to dispense with the option of covert action, particularly if there appears to be a threat from a terrorist group. However, there is no reason why such operations should not be regulated by ministerial warrants, in the manner of buggings, telephone tappings and mail openings.
The public is entitled to reassurance that its spies are under the control of elected representatives, and the best means of ensuring this is by a select committee of the House of Commons. The committee would be asked to set out general annual intelligence requirements, which could then be made available for debate in Parliament. Major overseas operations would be subject to pre-sight by the committee, as is the case in the US.
British officials have found oversight a difficult concept to accept, preferring instead to ask the public to place its trust in a committee of privy counsellors, who are no more than creatures of the government of the day.
The former CIA director William Colby believes that oversight in the US has worked well and that intelligence committees have shown 'they know the secrets and keep the secrets'. There will be leaks, suggests David Holliday, who has served a staff member of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. However, he adds, this should not stop what is a sensible policy. The way to minimise leaks, he says, is by realistic classification of documents, not by classifying tons of low-grade information primarily to protect the interests of the agency involved.
The primary role of oversight is control of the budget for the intelligence services, which gives the committee involved considerable power. But there are advantages for intelligence services in complying with oversight, in that the members of the committee can become advocates for the services. The American experience has shown that oversight lowers the 'absurdity factor' which accompanies a blanket ban on discussion of the security services and it tends to raise morale inside the services. The CIA has become a better service partly because of oversight.
Changes are afoot. The Prime Minister has ordered an informal review of MI6 budgets and pushed for more aggressive intelligence gathering in the areas of commerce and arms sales. Cuts in the Foreign Office budget that will reduce the number of embassies abroad, on which MI6 relies for 'light cover', are likely to be followed by deep cuts in the Secret Service allocation. The shortfall, however, will be made up by increased contributions from the Ministry of Defence.
Even so, MI6 remains a closed book. Though the officers around Sir Colin McColl are said to be 'liberal, eager and good operators', he is known to be an old-style service officer saddled with the attitudes of the Cold War. What is required is a major reform where MI6 is reduced to a small, tightly controlled organisation, better reflecting Britain's standing in the world and the requirements of our foreign policy and economic position.
The writer is the author of 'The Silent Conspiracy: Inside the Intelligence Services in the 1990s', published today by Heinemann at pounds 16.99.
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