Published on 16 Nov 2011 Sections ,

British spies thwarted plot by former Libyan allies

MI6 had struck up such a budding relationship with Libyan Intelligence in the preceding years that when they wanted to kill our people earlier this year, we seem to have known about it. Which illustrates a point the spooks often like to make: that it is in Britain’s national interests to do business with people we don’t like.

William Hague has made the first speech by a British Foreign Secretary on the role of MI6, MI5 and the government’s eavesdropping centre, GCHQ.
 
Earlier I blogged on why I think he was doing it: to help “restore public confidence” in agencies which usually cannot speak for themselves. Agencies tarnished by intelligence failures in the lead up to the Iraq war, as well as the steady flow of allegations of complicity in rendition and torture.
 
He didn’t say much that was new, but there was one revelation: that British Intelligence foiled a plot by the Gaddafi regime to attack the rebel leadership in Benghazi, and to kill western officials working there. I gather the plot was to kill British and French officials and had been hatched by Libyan Intelligence, who wanted to use suicide or car bombs.
 
The irony, of course, is that MI6 had struck up such a budding relationship with Libyan Intelligence in the preceding years that when they wanted to kill our people earlier this year, we seem to have known about it. Which illustrates a point the spooks often like to make: that it is in Britain’s national interests to do business with people we don’t like.
 
It is also in Britain’s national interests that not everything spies know is revealed in open court, and much of the speech was devoted to this topic. The most telling phrase? “Key overseas relations have been strained by pressure to disclose sensitive information belonging to other Governments.”
 
This is code for the United States, which felt like the invisible audience meant to be reassured by much of this speech. After the Binyam Mohammed case, in which his lawyers alleged British complicity in his torture and rendition to Guantanamo, the Americans threatened to “close the tap” on intelligence-sharing with the Brits if sensitive US Intelligence information ended up being disclosed in UK courts.
 
“If…others do not share information with us, the very real risk is that our security will be jeopardised,” was how Mr Hague put it, and he made the point repeatedly. It sounded as if British justice had to take account of just how special the “special relationship” is to Britain’s Intelligence apparatus.
 
“I count myself lucky to know them and to work with them,” Mr Hague said of Britain’s spies, with the heads of MI6, MI5 and GCHQ all sitting in the front row – a morale boost for agencies which say they abhor torture, but which have yet to be exonerated by the retired judge heading the enquiry into allegations of complicity.
 
And “drawing a line under the past” may prove easier said than done, given that the government has the final word in deciding what this enquiry discusses in secret.
 
Afterwards I asked Mr Hague to what extent public confidence had been damaged.  “I think it remains the case that the public have great confidence in our Intelligence agencies,” he replied, “but I think it is important for people to hear a fuller appreciation of that work…and that is why I have given this speech today.”