BOOK REVIEW / Window dressing for spies and spooks: 'In From The Cold' - Laurence Lustgarten, Ian Leigh: OUP, 22.50 pounds

Click to follow
STELLA RIMINGTON is officially identified as director-general of MI5, and recently appeared on television to deliver a crisp but bland Richard Dimbleby Lecture. MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, which conducts espionage and covert activities overseas, is publicly allocated the most ostentatious Post-Modernist building in London. Like GCHQ, they have both been brought in from the cold.

What the authors of this monumental study of Britain's intelligence and security agencies call the 'bizarre fiction' - the obdurate insistence for three quarters of a century that this country alone among the major powers had no intelligence, counter-intellligence, or electronic and radio surveillance services - has been abandoned with a vengeance.

All three agencies have been placed on a statutory basis; each is to be subject to some (as yet unspecified) scrutiny by a parliamentary committee. The debate among the spook-watchers is whether the apparent openness is much more than window dressing.

Cynics point out that even when the CIA was conducting its most grotesque operations, you could find the agency's number in the Virginia phone book, or roll along to Capitol Hill to watch named executives being grilled. Similarly, the KGB made no effort to conceal the fact of its existence.

In From the Cold is essential to any exploration of such questions. The authors - two distinguished academic lawyers - start from a detailed philosophical examination of security in a democratic state, and they examine that age-old conundrum; how far does the pursuit of the former inevitably subvert the latter?

Lustgarten and Leigh go on to make the novel point that the concept of European citizenship, legally recognised since Maastricht, will eventually undermine the concept of state security as applied to the United Kingdom. Although within the EU nation states retain 'formal legal independence' they assert that 'combined policies or actions in areas like defence and international relations' will undermine the basis for seperate national security systems.

Setting this argument aside, they treat national security as a function of the British Government, and one which can be compared with, say, education or tranport policy. This raises practical questions of how policies are made, how they are implemented, how operatives are supervised and what avenues for redress exist.

On the whole the authors are restrained in their enthusiasm for the executive, legislative and prerogative powers which envelop security matters. They have particular fun with the new Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. It is, they point out, neither a select committee nor a privy councillors' committee, yet it will contain members drawn from both Houses.

Individual members will be appointed by the Prime Minister after consultation with the Opposition - but there is no compulsion on him to reach agreement with the Opposition, or to achieve a balanced committee. And the PM will have an unlimited power of dismissal. In addition, the legislation provides only a generalised duty for officials to meet the committee's requests for information 'subject to and in accordance with arrangements approved by the Secretary of State'.

It is not surprising, then, that the authors of this ground-breaking work conclude that in spite of the changes they outline, the result is likely to be little more than 'a facade of dignity and political detachment'.