Bilateral rivalries drop off agenda in wake of Sept 11




By Mark Huband, Security Correspondent

Financial Times, 5 May 2003

When Vasily Mitrokhin walked into the British Embassy of an unidentified Baltic state and asked to speak with “someone in authority”, the past began to be rewritten.

It was March 24, 1992. The cold war was over, the Soviet Union was no more and the Berlin Wall was now reduced to rubble.

But when this former KGB chief archivist returned to the embassy, on April 9, with 2,000 closely typed pages of KGB secrets, British intelligence officers saw not only the past but the present and future detailed in front of them.

For the UK foreign intelligence service, called the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) – though better known as MI6 – the archive that had fallen into its hands was “not only illuminating past KGB activity against Western countries but also promising to nullify many of Russia’s current assets”, according to the inquiry that followed Mr Mitrokhin’s revelations.

While the Soviet Union was the country whose secrets Mr Mitrokhin had passed on, it was post-Soviet Russia that also stood to lose the “assets” – the spies and informers – that it had inherited from the USSR. No former or current Soviet or Russian spies were safe.

The exposure of sources is the death-knell of a secret service; it is also the Achilles’ heel that rival intelligence services continue to seek out in each other.

While the end of the cold war transformed diplomatic relations between the former ideological rivals, the political thaw did not reduce the levels of intelligence and counter-intelligence activity between what are now poli-tical and economic rivals.

But then came al-Qaeda.

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, the shift in focus from bilateral rivalries to the global threat from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction has brought both a overhaul of intelligence-sharing practices – and along with it a readiness to use secret intelligence as source material in public debate. Both are huge shifts.

Al-Qaeda had proved near-impossible to infiltrate at a senior level. Subsequently, since the September 11 attacks, the shortcomings of technology-based information gathering has been revealed – intelligence gathering of the kind that US officials admit they have relied upon too heavily.

The need for “human intelligence” – or “humint” – was made stark by the al-Qaeda attacks, and the SIS is now seeking to double its number of frontline officers in order to expand its human intelligence capability.

But while the failure to infiltrate al-Qaeda at a senior level has brought a heavy price, success in “running” agents on the ground brought advantages in the war against Iraq.

“There, our effort was focused on working very closely with British forces. The real heroes were those incredibly brave Iraqis who worked with us,” said an intelligence official.

Most significantly, when British forces interpreted gun battles in the southern city of Basra as signs of an uprising against Saddam Hussein, Iraqis within the city passed on information to the SIS that the fighting was between Ba’ath party rivals. That intelligence had a big influence on the military strategy for the seizure of the city.

While the Iraq war proved the value of conventional “humint”, it was also a watershed in the use of intelligence for political purposes. In two UK government dossiers – one on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, the other on its efforts to hide that capacity from UN weapons inspectors – intelligence gathered by the SIS and allied services was used for the first time ever as the sole justification for war, placing a great responsibility on the SIS.

When the Tony Blair gave parliament details of Iraq’s alleged arms capacity last September, he forced previously unseen aspects of the secretive world of intelligence into the open.

This raised the spectre of intelligence becoming politicised, notably when Mr Bush announced that Iraq was linked to al-Qaeda, while Mr Blair told parliament there was no clear connection.

No intelligence agencies have produced evidence linking the Iraqi regime operationally with al-Qaeda, and the issue of why the two leaders – whose intelligence agencies share most of what they learn – came to such different conclusions, has yet to be addressed adequately.

Subsequently, the exposure of glaring factual errors in at least one intelligence report presented to the UN Security Council by Colin Powell, US secretary of state, has cast some doubt on the veracity of much of the intelligence material.

Mr Powell, citing UK intelligence material, said that Iraq had sought to buy uranium from Niger. After examining letters allegedly substantiating the claim, Mohamed el-Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the letters were fake.

Further intelligence material presented by US officials suggesting Iraq had sought to buy aluminium tubes for use in centrifuges for the uranium enrichment process was also dismissed by the inspectorate.

Within the SIS, there is the view that it is likely that similar disclosures will be made in the future. Its challenge now is to find the weapons over which the war in Iraq was fought.


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.