BOOK REVIEW / New demons and old spooks in the business of secrecy: 'The Silent Conspiracy' - Stephen Dorril: Heinemann, 16.99 pounds

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THE BRITISH obsession with secrecy and the secret state has led to a spate of books over the years devoted to the workings of the secret services. Most tend to take the view that they are a necessary evil, but Stephen Dorril takes a refreshingly sceptical view of the 'guardians of the realm'. Some may be put off by the plethora of initials and acronyms, spawned by the arcane corners of the secret services, that litter the text; but none the less Silent Conspiracy is a useful guide to our intelligence services, and is particularly good on chronicling the stealthy, anti-democratic growth of the powers of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ and the calibre of their staff.

In 1982 Geoffrey Prime was given 35 years for spying while working at GCHQ - and he was caught only after being arrested for molesting young girls. Two years later Michael Bettaney, the first MI5 officer to appear in the dock, was convicted of 10 offences under the Official Secrets Act and sentenced to 23 years. Young, inexperienced and a Catholic, he had had a particularly horrifying tour of duty in Northern Ireland; at one point, hiding in a cupboard, he witnessed one of his contacts being kneecapped. Unnoticed by his own service as he wandered the corridors at Gower Street at night photographing documents to give to the Soviets, he was caught after the timely intervention of a defector.

Cathy Massiter's increasing concerns that MI5's monitoring of 'subversives' was getting out of control were completely misunderstood. All the service could think of was to send her to the in-house psychiatrist - later used as a smear tactic when she went public with her misgivings.

Equally chilling is the inexorable extension of MI5's powers and the consequent danger to our civil liberties. As the Cold War thawed, the activities of the counter-espionage K branch (best exemplified by Peter Wright's exploits bugging and burgling his way through foreign embassies) gradually waned in influence and into the vacuum stepped the counter-subversion F branch.

The perceived threat from the 'far and wide left' increased dramatically under Margaret Thatcher. In 1985, in a written answer, she included in her definition of a subversive someone who 'is a member . . . of a subversive group, acknowledged to be such by the Minister'.

To meet this elastic description, surveillance of groups and individuals has expanded, both of the covert electronic and the footslogging sort. None of these activities is properly accountable to Parliament and the security services are free to pursue their own agendas. As Dorril recounts, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International's illegal activities were closely monitored for years because of the information to be gained by following the movement of funds for arms and drug laundering and keeping tabs on the private accounts of terrorists such as Abu Nidal. That BCCI was fraudulent to the core was irrelevant.

Robert Maxwell and his business activities were also tracked. Again, he was more useful alive and crooked than brought to book and out of action. It is not clear to what purpose those mountains of information are put. But on the rare occasions when the intelligence services are publicly seen to act in the national interest the result is usually farcical.

At the start of the Gulf war a number of Palestinians and Arabs were rounded up and interned in Rollestone Army Camp. The information to justify this draconian action was either inaccurate or out of date. Eventually they were all released, but not before the then Master of the Rolls, falling into step with the security service ethos, intoned (in best Cocklecarrot fashion): 'Those who are able most effectively to undermine national security are those who least appear to constitute any risk to it.'

Now that MI5 has gingerly stepped out of the closet, it is revealed that the vast majority of its

resources is dedicated to counter-terrorism. In effect, the Irish have replaced the 'far and wide left' as the new demons. In spite of the supposed 'openness' of the present government, the security and secret services are still not accountable to Parliament. The question posed by Silent Conspiracy is how long a democracy that is kept 'safe' by agencies it has no power over can remain a democracy.

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