Crispin Black: Our intelligence is lacking

Our agencies seem slow and settled in their ways, almost like medieval guilds
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The Independent Online

Sven Goran Eriksson, John Scarlett and Eliza Manningham-Buller have one thing in common: they are judged pitilessly on results. The intelligence team has not been playing to anything like its full potential and there are strong doubts about the vision and competence of the management but we must acknowledge that regardless of the blunders of 7/7 and the apparent increase in the threat from Islamist terror the bottom line is that there have been no successful terrorist attacks on the UK mainland since 7/7. But the performance is hardly yet assured.

We seem to learn lessons too slowly from a cumbersome system lashed together between the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) and the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). The slowness of the system and over-delicate legal considerations about trials and inquiries mean lessons take too long to learn and the public debate which could lead to rapid improvements is skewed or stifled. When there is a cock-up, such as letting Mohammed Siddique Khan slip through our fingers, we have to try to learn the lessons at a bureaucratic snail's pace through oversight systems designed for the Cold War. Even now we do not seem to have got to the bottom of the Mohammed Siddique Khan story and the energy and ingenuity expended in refusing to acknowledge a blunder could have been better deployed elsewhere.

Islamists are fighting a hot war. And they learn quickly. Disrupt their command and control by forcing their leaders to hide in caves in the Afghan mountains and lo and behold the structure evolves. Al-Qa'ida no longer has to attack us; they can persuade some of our own citizens to do it for them.

Part of the problem is that the constitutional position of our intelligence services (how they are supervised and held to account) was put in place in 1994 and has not been revised. In a world where all the assumptions and procedures pre-9/11 need to be revisited, our agencies find themselves stuck in the past. Modern Islamist terrorists are to intelligence agencies what dreadnought battleships were to the old iron-clads; everything now risks being out of date.

We need rolling, independent and trusted oversight to bring the intelligence services on, and to improve our confidence in them. Most sensible people realise it is operationally vital for the intelligence services to keep their secrets; tradecraft (the tricks of surveillance for instance) and source protection are the two most crucial aspects. But the effect of the need for security has been that the agencies sometimes appear to be in a closed world uninfluenced by the latest thinking or even common sense.

So how can we help them adapt? The quickest and least controversial way to install proper oversight would be to build on the Intelligence and Security Committee. Model it on the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee which sets our interest rates. That way, it would know the full story at any one time, have access to all intelligence by right and employ a permanent investigator who understands the system but is appointed on the same basis as the others, for the duration of a parliament. For it to have independence, appoint independent members in addition to politicians who already sit on it.

If quick expansion seems to be a problem for the agencies (and it does), appoint someone who has expanded a roughly similar commercial company successfully and quickly. Independence and access to best intelligence practice could also be underscored by the appointment of a foreigner. The principle of giving foreigners a voice in our intelligence is well established: the head of the CIA's London station usually speaks last at meetings of the Joint Intelligence Committee to which he is invited (most of them). A retired head of the Direction de la Surveillance Territoire (French MI5 and considered the most formidable and experienced opponents of Islamist terror) sitting on the committee would do wonders for professional standards.

This would both fix the intelligence services in the constitutional firmament and improve performance and public confidence. For instance, a committee made up in this way could quickly deliver comment or trusted assessment on the latest twists and turns in the counter-terrorist effort, the Forest Gate raid or the latest information about Mohammed Siddique Khan. It could have produced a much better report into 7/7 much more quickly. And people would trust it.

Its other function would be to prise open the dead hand of civil service bureaucracy which smothers the agencies. For instance, if you want to recruit the best people as spooks you need to offer higher starting salaries. If you need linguists, why not take students after two years of their degrees and allow their third year to be spent working in the agencies? If you need culturally plausible people to penetrate closed UK Muslim communities, why not recruit from Indian intelligence services. And so on.

Our intelligence services have always been at their most effective when they have been able to attract and co-opt the best and most energetic outside minds available. New energies and new perspectives are not just useful parts of any struggle against Islamist terror but vital in combating a threat which has grown and changed since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Often, over the past year, when we have got a public glimpse of our agencies in action they have seemed slow and settled in their ways and outlook, almost like medieval guilds.

Finally, we should all understand that intelligence is only a small part of the fight back; other broader cultural and security factors need to be co-ordinated for us to be successful. It is unfair to expect the agencies to do their job unless we remember that many aspects of our nation's life have security and intelligence implications. Border controls and immigration are two of the most obvious. The best intelligence agencies can never be a substitute for will. A security system which lacks the confidence or procedures to expel agents of the late Abu Musab al Zarqawi posing as asylum-seekers is hindering, and could lose us, the intelligence war.

Crispin Black is a former government intelligence analyst and author of '7-7: What Went Wrong'