Ex-diplomat exposes British spy flaws

A former senior British diplomat on Thursday broke the traditional taboo on discussing British intelligence (MI6) operations to launch a broadside against the United Kingdom intelligence agencies’ failures in the wake of the Hutton inquiry into the death of the British weapons expert Dr David Kelly.

Writing in the London-based Guardian newspaper, Sir Peter Heap, British ambassador to Brazil until 1995 and subsequently an adviser to the HSBC investment bank, quoted his own experiences with MI6 that show, he says, why politicians allowed themselves to be misled over Iraq.

“The poor quality of intelligence material ... was far too readily accepted at face value by ministers.’’

He described how he once discovered an MI6 officer at one embassy sending back a secret intelligence report that he described as emanating from a “well-placed source”. But it was an article lifted from a local newspaper.

Heap ’s caustic description of MI6’s working methods, which included bribing unreliable local informants with large amounts of cash, will embarrass Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, and John Scarlett, a former MI6 officer and head of the UK’s joint intelligence committee, responsible respectively for supplying and then endorsing the claims in the now notorious Blair dossier that Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

Never before has a senior diplomat given such a detailed and scathing public account of MI6’s behaviour, normally protected by the UK’s Official Secrets Act.

Heap said some MI6 officers pay local informants enough to send their children to British boarding schools.
“Those agents, dependent on that money, inevitably had a strong temptation to embellish their reports.”

He added: “The whole process is wrapped around in an unnecessary cloak and aura of secrecy, mystery and danger that prevents those from outside the security services applying normal and rigorous judgements on what they produce. It is difficult to see why, for example, Sir Richard Dearlove, chief of MI6, should have given his evidence to the Hutton inquiry by telephone. Everyone knows his name and what he does.’’

The joint intelligence committee, he said, fails to do its job properly. “This, in my judgement, is not a sufficient vehicle for rigorously scrutinising intelligence data. Ministers and Parliament need to look harder and much more closely at the security services and their methodology, and then use their information sparingly and selectively.’’

Heap spent more than 30 years in the diplomatic service, including spells in Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Brazil. He said embassy staff see all the secret so-called “CX” reports that undercover MI6 officers send back to London, but are powerless to veto them, even if they believe them to be wrong or worthless.

“Local MI6 officers ... had an incentive to play up the importance or reliability of their sources on which they based their dispatches. Ambassadors and diplomatic staff saw and commented on their intelligence reports that went to their HQ in London, but could not alter nor stop them, nor know the identity of the sources.’’

He went on: “It would make a huge difference in assessing the value of a report from, say, ‘a source close to the president’ to know whether that source is the vice-president or a household servant or someone with whom the president lunches occasionally.’’

This attack is aimed directly at Dearlove and Scarlett, who assured Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office that their second-hand source for the claim that Iraqi forces could deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes was “an established and reliable line of reporting’’. The threat was then hardened up under political pressure from Blair’s staff.

GCHQ, the British government listening agency that provides London with electronic intercepts, is dismissed by Heap as rarely useful. He monitored foreign wars from London and found it impossible to distinguish the flood of inaccurate or misleading intercepts from accurate ones.

The intelligence agencies offered to monitor secret talks he was having with one foreign delegation, he said, when they reported back to their own capital. But the only intercept they produced after weeks of expense was a single paragraph of a draft agreement, which turned out to have originally been drafted by Heap himself. — Â

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