Few would deny that intelligence and security services have a place in any modern state. But precisely what place they should occupy, and on what terms, seems not always to have been fully worked out – even now, in 21st-century Britain, with its long and colourful tradition of real, as well as fictional, James Bonds.
It could, of course, be argued that this is just how the spies like it. Too much definition, too closely defined a brief, they might say – though obviously anonymously and subject to strict deniability – would not only clip their wings but also reduce their effectiveness in a world that needs its shadows.
On occasion, however – and we suspect rather more often than this – it turns out that these shadows have been used to blur, or actually conceal, the lines of accountability that ought to exist in any state that is governed by the law. And this week has provided three very different, but quite scandalous, cases in which elements of the security services appear either to have been out of control, or – which would be even worse – to have been used by the state in ways that contradict everything that Britain professes to hold dear.
First into the public domain was the case of the Northern Ireland solicitor Pat Finucane, who was shot 14 times at his family dinner table 23 years ago in a political murder which – it transpires from this week's report by Sir Desmond de Silva – was actively facilitated by the UK security services. In apologising, for the second time, for this outrage, the Prime Minister expressed his shock, as well as his regrets. The truth must be dawning, however, that at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, officers from MI5, the police and the Army were not only deciding on matters of life and death, but then lying and dissembling to cover their tracks. Only the Cabinet of the day emerged without blemish from Sir Desmond's report. Then again, it might reasonably be said that if it did not know what was going on, it should have done.
Second were the revelations, at a hearing in preparation for next year's formal inquest, that the Russian exile Alexander Litvinenko was in the pay not just of MI6 but of Spanish intelligence, before he died six years ago of radiation poisoning. Until then, the British Government had said that the very question of Litvinenko's alleged UK intelligence connections was off limits. Strange as it might seem, the truth emerged only because of information contained in secret US cables obtained by WikiLeaks. It may or may not be relevant to his death that the Russian was working for MI6 – that will be for the long-delayed inquest to decide – but it is a part of the picture that the British authorities had done their utmost to keep under wraps, and it may be pertinent to ask why.
The third case to return to the headlines this week was that of a Libyan dissident, Sami al-Saadi, who was lured to Hong Kong, kidnapped and taken to his home country to be imprisoned and tortured, in what he says was a joint US-UK operation. On Thursday, it was announced that Mr Saadi had accepted compensation of £2.2m – a settlement which, like those agreed previously with former Guantanamo detainees, the Foreign Office ludicrously described as entailing "no admission of liability". Maybe not, on paper. But why, the baffled British taxpayer might be entitled to ask, did the Government offer any payment in any of these cases if it was so confident of its non-complicity?
And the answer is that the intelligence services have cracked the whip and convinced successive governments not only that their agents and their techniques would be compromised if they were required to testify in court, but that their prized intelligence-sharing with the United States could be jeopardised. Given that no testimony means no case, the Government claims it has no alternative but to pay up. The rendition cases, like that of the Saadi family and another Libyan case – that of Abdulhakim Belhaj, which is still outstanding – are also the reason why ministers are trying to pass legislation that would allow courts to hear intelligence evidence in closed session. It is a move that is being fiercely and rightly resisted – justice, after all, has not just to be done, but to be seen to be done – not only by rights organisations but also in the House of Lords, where a series of votes this week may end up forcing a government retreat.
If so-called secret courts are not the answer, however – and we believe that, at least in the form currently envisaged by the Government, they are not – that leaves the urgent need to introduce much more accountability into the operations of the intelligence services, starting with the introduction of proper parliamentary scrutiny. The present system, under which individual service heads appear to decide how much visibility they will accept and official oversight is exercised by the Intelligence and Security Committee appointed by the Prime Minister, is completely inadequate. Claims that the US could withdraw intelligence co-operation in the event of more transparency on the part of the British security services also need to be countered with arguments about the damage such joint activities as rendition have inflicted on Britain's reputation.
It is more than a year now since the ISC itself recommended that it should become a full committee of Parliament; that it should be accountable jointly to Parliament and the Prime Minister, and that its remit should be expanded "to provide more effective, credible and transparent oversight of the UK intelligence community". Every word here deserves to be savoured as a comment on the inadequacies of the present arrangements. The revelations of the past week – the like of which we would deplore in any democratic country and should be a particular source of shame for Britain – underline just how imperative such changes are.