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Ex-MI5 boss: People ask, why didn't you follow all these people ... on your radar?

Former spymaster Stella Rimington on cyber espionage, terrorism and more

Former MI5 boss Stella Rimington says complex communications "make it very difficult for our intelligence services" to keep pace against "hideous ideologies" whose sole aim is to kill, while cyber espionage is something "no one really knows effectively how to deal with".

It was a bleak picture she painted of the threat landscape during her opening keynote at Infosecurity Europe 2017 in London. Given the recent attacks in London and Manchester, that is not surprising.

"At least with the IRA, they had a mission and they were not anxious to kill a lot of people," she told delegates.

During her talk, Rimington reminisced about how the security services had changed since she joined in the 1960s – after which she went on to become the first female and publicly named director general in 1992.

"The security world has grown and expanded, it has been a story of constant change and constant growth, and now there are more calls for change in the face of the horrors that happened in the last few weeks," she said.

MI5's focus shifted from countering espionage to countering terrorism during her time at the service, said Rimington. Terrorism arrived primarily in the form of the IRA and at the same time began to emerge in the Middle East, she says.

"[When I joined it] was like a John Le Carre novel, people were leaving packets of money in hollow trees in Hampstead Heath," she recalled.

She said that after the Cold War, people began to say "they didn't need our intelligence services any more because they thought it was all about spying".

"But what they didn't realise was the intelligence services had a huge part to play in countering terrorism – and terrorism by then was hugely on the rise. So we sat down and said to ourselves – and by then I was quite senior in the service – 'What are we going to do to ensure we still are needed and stop all our resources being taken away?'."

In from the cold

The former MI5 chief said that when the Cold War ended, she went to Moscow to make "first contact" with the KGB. "I found myself facing a long line of KGB officers in their headquarters, The Lubyanka, which over the years had been a prison-death-cell-torture chamber, god knows what, and facing a long line of hard-faced KGB officers trying to talk to them about how intelligence services work in democracies.

"They had absolutely no intention of changing the way they worked... and they didn't accept Russia was about to become a democracy and of course it hasn't. And the KGB is running Russia in the form of Mr Putin and his supporters."

Nevertheless, it was a period of optimism. "When the Cold War came to an end [it felt like] the world was going to change and change for the better. But it wasn't. The world has changed, in my opinion, for the worse."

Shortly after she came back from that trip, Rimington was made director general of the Security Service in 1992 – the first woman to hold that role and the first DG to be publicly recognised. "I hadn't even applied for the job, which was typical of how it worked back then."

She believes that her tenure as DG oversaw a period of greater openness.

"It was not until 1989 that the first security service act in this country was passed that set out what the powers of MI5 and then MI6 were. That made a fundamental change, because it introduced oversight for the judges, it meant our staff could appear in court when a terrorist was arrested and could testify. That was a fundamental change, the beginning of openness, which was extended and expanded in my role."

Gradual reform

She also says the service was forced to reform from the old boy network it used to be.

"Terrorism caused a huge change in the service, because different skills and different kinds of people were required. But what happened [was] at the top [were the] kind of people running the service I joined, and yet down below – and this is something that happens in corporations – were people who knew what they needed was a different kind of management and a different kind of style. And the two got out of sync."

Three crises prompted change, she said.

First, an officer had volunteered his services to the Russian embassy, but was caught because of a KGB source. "He had been behaving very strangely, and because of the gulf between senior management and the other, nobody had reported that he had been behaving strangely."

People say to MI5 these days, 'Why were you not following around all these people, who have been on your radar?'...

Secondly, someone from the agency went on television and said MI5 was exceeding its powers and was trying to infiltrate the unions, "which was not true".

And the final crisis, she said, was Peter Wright's publication of Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer in Australia, which she says revealed every secret operation involved in and the name of every colleague the former MI5 assistant director had had. Then prime minster Margaret Thatcher subsequently tried and failed to prosecute him.

"They were our three crises, that came because more junior staff knew that we needed change and senior didn't. And of course the whole thing blows up."

"[Recently] I've heard various politicians saying we need radical change... because once there is a crisis [there are calls for] radical change... but probably what we need is gradual change."

Privacy versus security

Rimington did not go into detail regarding the current debate around security versus privacy in the post-Edward Snowden revelations era, and did not speak on the efficacy of mass surveillance except to say it has been a long-running issue.

She gave the Dimbleby lecture in 1994 on whether there is a conflict between privacy and security. "That is a debate going on now. How much should we sacrifice our privacy, our human rights, in order for the government to be able to look afterwards?

"And that is the debate going on now, it was the debate going on then at the end of the Cold War, and of course the line will move depending on the threats the government is trying to protect us [from]."

More openness about what the intelligence services do has meant there is more understanding in general by the public about what "we can and can't do", she told the delegates.

"Because of all efforts in those days: open recruitment, no more 'taps on the shoulder', websites which demonstrate what do... because of all that, the intelligence services are better placed now than [they] would have been had [they] not gone through all that drama."

She told the crowd: "People say to MI5 these days, 'Why were you not following around all these people, who have been on your radar?'... and inevitably over time [when] there is a hideous attack, somebody will have been on the radar."

She added: "In a democracy, it would not be acceptable to have a security service police force that is so enormous that it can follow everyone around. That is something to remember when you hear all those criticisms of what is going on."

It's not easy for the MI5 team, she added. The security threats to world today, "it seems to me, are worse and more complex and more difficult than at any time in my career.

"That is the key to what I want to say: change is constant, it has been going on since dawn of time. But the key thing is it must be carefully managed." ®

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