Leading Article: A chance to open the files

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The Independent Online
When Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party he talked eloquently of the undesirably "dark corners" of party policy - like the archaic Clause IV of the party's venerable constitution. Having been in power for four months, he now has a duty to illuminate a dark corner of the British state. David Shayler, the relatively junior MI5 agent who went public last weekend with the spectacular revelation that Jack Straw, Harriet Harman and Peter Mandelson were under active surveillance in the 1970s, and that Mr Mandelson's security file was still live as late as 1992, is not the most impressive of witnesses. But he has drawn attention to some of the shortcomings of a security apparatus seriously in need of modernisation. If Mandelson's youthful leftishness was regarded as a reason for treating him as a potential threat to national security, then it looks as if MI5 was wasting quite a lot of public money over quite a long period. Even if, as Mr Shayler attests, the service has largely abandoned this kind of "counter-subversion" activity, his claims underline a woeful lack of democratic accountability in British intelligence and security services.

The Shayler revelations have become an early test, ahead of the Freedom of Information Bill promised for the next parliamentary session, of the Blair administration's commitment to open government. There is one immediate change the Government could make. For some time the Data Protection Registrar has been trying to persuade the security services to register their databases, which would give citizens the right, for a small fee, to examine their own computerised security files. Jack Straw should direct them to do so. This would not mean that individuals who genuinely pose a threat to national security, terrorists or international drug smugglers, for example, would be able to establish whether they were under surveillance. All the agencies that have registered, including the police, are already able to invoke a national security exemption in the Data Protection Act, with the deliberately ambiguous response to applicants that they hold no information which they are obliged to release under the Act. That formula is used both in cases where there is no data and where there are security reasons for not releasing data. The applicant is none the wiser. One might argue that we would be no better off. But registration would be a significant change in principle. In the US, where the FBI and the CIA are subject to freedom of information legislation, victims of McCarthyite persecution, or student radicals of the 1960s have been able secure their files. There is no reason why this shouldn't happen here.

This is only one of a number of ways in which the security services could be subjected to a little open government. We need a proper debate on the priorities for a post-Cold War intelligence service. Giving MI6 a role against international drug trafficking, announced by Robin Cook, for example, may make sense. But we can have the debate only if we know what MI6 is doing now - not the operational detail, but the strategic priorities. Certainly MI5 took a step forward by producing a booklet about itself in 1993, updated in 1996. But it is woefully inadequate. The short section on resources and how they are deployed, from which we learn that "Irish and Other Domestic" accounted for 39 per cent of the service's work in 1995-96, neglects to mention what the total resources are. No other government agency could get away with this. Treasury officials are unable even to establish the long-term trends in expenditure by the Security and Intelligence Services. Could not the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee question the heads of MI5 and MI6 in public from time to time? It could lead to another improvement: giving that body a sharper profile.

For most people the right to find out the clinical priorities of the local hospital, or the expert advice to ministers on the safety of a particular food, is more important than the arcane complexities of the security services. The Freedom of Information Bill will stand or fall on its ability to respond to these needs. Ministers have hinted that the Bill was shelved for a year because the proposals before them were too limited. If so, we are prepared to wait a year. A good Bill in 1998-99 would be better than a bad one in 1997-98. But meanwhile ministers have an opportunity to introduce a little glasnost in the security services. And perhaps even repair some of the damage inflicted on their public image by Mr Shayler.