MI5 head: Govt spreads fear

By politics.co.uk staff

The former head of MI5 has hit out at the way government has spread fear around society to overrule British civil liberties.

The unprecedented intervention by Dame Stella Rimington came in an article to Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia and published in the Daily Telegraph.

“It would be better that the government recognised that there are risks, rather than frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict civil liberties, precisely one of the objects of terrorism – that we live in fear and under a police state,” she wrote.

Turning her attention to the United States, Dame Stella stressed the UK had not adopted the same tactics as American intelligence services, despite statements from an MI5 agent during cross-examination last year that he had questioned a British resident in Pakistan despite him being in an “extremely vulnerable position”.

“The US has gone too far with Guantanamo and the tortures,” Dame Stella said.

“MI5 does not do that. Furthermore it has achieved the opposite effect – there are more and more suicide terrorists finding a greater justification.”

She continued: “Since I have retired I feel more at liberty to be against certain decisions of the government, especially the attempt to pass laws which interfere with people’s privacy.”

The Home Office responded swiftly to the comments, saying new surveillance measures were “proportionate”.

“The government has been clear that, where surveillance or data collection will impact on privacy, they should only be used where it is necessary and proportionate,” a spokesman said.

“The key is to strike the right balance between privacy, protection and sharing of personal data.

“This provides law enforcement agencies with the tools to protect the public as well as ensuring Government has the ability to provide effective public services while ensuring there are effective safeguards and a solid legal framework that protects civil liberties.”

But her comments were broadly welcomed across the political spectrum.

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Ed Davey said: “This is damning testament to just how much liberty has been ineffectually sacrificed in the ‘war on terror’.”

The Conservatives seized on her article as a vindication over their stand against 42-day pre-charge detention.

“The Conservative party is committed to ensuring that security measures are proportionate and adhere to the rule of law,” shadow security minister Baroness Neville-Jones said.

The article comes a day after an international committee of judges and lawyers berated the government’s counterterrorism strategy.

The report, by the independent International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), also concluded most of the measures were counterproductive.

It highlighted how many countries with poor human rights record now point to UK and US anti-terror plans as justification for their actions.

Dame Stella stood down as director of the security services in 1996, and has a strong track record of criticising illiberal policies, including pre-charge detention and ID cards.

She became the head of MI5 – the first woman to do so – in 1992.