Last week, the BBC published details of a long-running investigation into an MI5 agent who, it is alleged, terrorised, abused and attempted to kill an intimate partner. The BBC had further located an intimate partner in another country, with similar experiences, and suggestions of active targeting of young women, by this agent, for exploitation.
The agent is alleged to be a paid informant or CHIS [covert intelligence intelligence source] for MI5 [the UK’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency], who has infiltrated extremist networks on the state’s behalf. Critically, his UK victim claimed that he warned her not to report his behaviour, invoking his protected status as an agent. The BBC reports the victim saying:
“It meant that I couldn’t speak out about any of his behaviour towards me, any of the violence I went through, sexual or physical, because he had men in high places who always had his back, who would intervene and who would actively kill me, if I spoke out.” (BBC, 20 May 2022)
Since publication of the story, the victim has lodged a formal complaint with the watchdog for the intelligence agencies, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) (BBC, 21 May 2022).
As distressing and shocking as the details of the story are, of significant interest also is the experience of the BBC in trying to investigate and publish this story and the Government’s response. Lead journalist Daniel De Simone recounted this in a piece published the day after the story broke.
Over months, De Simone and other BBC colleagues were involved in a protracted legal case in the High Court, involving MI5, government, police and others. He describes how MI5 sought to undermine the credibility of the story and attempts were made by government to secure editorial control (a demand later dropped, according to De Simone). Moreover, a ‘closed material procedure’ was applied, where secret evidence was considered by the judge and by special security-cleared barristers acting for the BBC behind closed doors. The barristers were however barred from communicating with the BBC team, lest the evidence used in the case against them were disclosed. In this way, De Simone found himself experiencing the double bind of secrecy he had himself reported on in relation to terrorism cases over the years (BBC, 22 May 2022).
The BBC sought to expose alleged individual criminality in private, outside of the course of state work (criminality during undercover work has been covered elsewhere in this blog). On the other side, the concern of the state has been to protect that individual as an intelligence asset (whose exposure, it is claimed, could compromise other current and future such assets).
“We argued that it was important to identify X so that other women he encountered could be warned about him and the abusive behaviour our investigation had uncovered. The security service, however, argued that naming X would create an unacceptable danger to him from extremists and discourage other people from acting as informants, which would damage national security.” (BBC, 22 May 2022)
The argument about protecting an intelligence source, and thereby others, has merit on the face of it. But it is a distraction. The more significant question is the lack of oversight and handler knowledge (or inaction based on that knowledge) about the agent in question, over a number of years. First, the BBC investigation suggests that this individual is being paid to infiltrate extremist organisations, yet there is visual and witness evidence that he himself holds extremist attitudes. So he might be more accurately described as an active extremist who has been persuaded to pass information to the state. Second, the government and security services are presented with information (which they may have already known) that this person is a serious (potentially fatal) threat to women and girls. Third, there is evidence that he is leveraging his status to warn these women against reporting him: so he is selectively disclosing that he is a CHIS in order to exert control. All of this should surely have sounded alarm bells.
This story of unchecked males, supported by the state, is not new. The 2015 Stephen Taylor report, revealed that officers in the Special Demonstration Squad (or SDS, a Metropolitan police unit operating from 1968 to 2008) used the identities of dead children to create aliases and entered into romantic relationships with women while undercover (with at least three officers fathering children) (Guardian, 28 October 2020). Despite victims speaking out about their experience over the years, what tipped the balance, the Guardian newspaper argues, was the revelation in 2013 by former SDS Officer Peter Francis that the Metropolitan police had spied on the Lawrence family, in the wake of the murder of their son Stephen, in 1993. The then Home Secretary Theresa May commissioned a review – which became Stephen Taylor’s 2015 report – to understand the links between the Home Office and SDS: in other words, to establish who knew what and when. Yet the Taylor report notes that, “there appears to be no record in the [Home Office] Department of anything related to the SDS during its years of operation from 1968 – 2008” (Taylor, 2015, para.3.2.14). Taylor describes this as a “concern”, noting that, “it is not possible to conclude whether this is human error or deliberate concealment” (Taylor, 2015, para.3.2.13).
The police and security services have historically been dominated by men working ‘undercover’ or ‘in the field’ (with women dominating office-based and administrative roles because the field was/is masculine and therefore their femininity would unhelpfully mark them). Police culture, Westminster culture, and we can guess parts of MI5 culture have traditionally been masculine. This masculine sensibility can mean tolerating stereotypical behaviour such as sexual conquest, violence, coercion and hubris, often at the expense of women, children and less powerful or gender-resistant men.
Intentional or not, in continuing to defend, protect or erase police and security individuals who engage in violence and exploitation against women and girls, the state perpetuates patriarchy. Paradoxically (or perhaps entirely consistently), it does so in the name of public protection.
This informant may well have protected us from a terror attack or prevented other harm – we will never know his contribution, though we do know (thanks to investigative journalism) some of the price paid. Is it too much to expect paid informants to be broadly law-abiding in their personal lives? Is the system of informants at root problematic and in need of reform?
The SDS scandal led to the establishment of the Undercover Policing Inquiry. Given the security services’ response to the BBC investigation, a similar public inquiry into the actions of paid informants and their handling by the state, looks some way off.
© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2022.