Letter: We do not need, or want, MI5 to be a secret police force

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Sir: Your report on the pending announcement that MI5 is to take on mainstream police work, particularly in the areas of drug trafficking and other serious crimes, understated the lack of public accountability of the British security and intelligence agencies.

Although there appears to have been some attempts at openness at MI5 - such as Stella Rimington delivering last year's Dimbleby Lecture and even risking a two-line entry in Who's Who - recent evidence indicates that this has been little more than an elaborate public relations campaign.

Specifically, earlier this summer the Data Protection Registrar's Office stated that it had advised MI5 to register under the Data Protection Act 1984, which would require the subjects of MI5's massive Joint Computer Bureau (estimated to contain between 500,000 and two million names) to inspect their files and have any mistakes removed.

The Data Protection Registrar even suggested that MI6 and the GCHQ centre at Cheltenham might follow suit. But earlier this month a surprised Registrar announced that MI5 had declined the opportunity of complying with the Data Protection Act.

The message, therefore, is clear: the status quo will continue to apply to the UK's secretive pounds 1bn-a-year security and intelligence agencies. So much, then, for Citizen's Charters, Codes of Practice on Access to Government Information and the few Freedom of Information laws that exist in this country.

Yours faithfully

David Northmore

London, WC2

22 September

The writer is author of `Lifting The Lid: A Guide to Investigative Research' (Cassell, 1995).

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