Guardian interview finally brings an MI5 boss in from the cold – but why?

Head of MI5, Andrew Parker, testifying to the first parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee in 2013. PA Archive

I cannot believe that a frisson did not pass through The Guardian’s offices when the paper’s executives had to balance the value of an exclusive interview with Andrew Parker, the director-general of the security service MI5, against the fact that it meant giving front page space to the loudest and most unrepentant critic of the paper’s work with whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The Guardian made much of the exclusivity of it being the first-ever interview with a serving head of MI5 by a newspaper – but that was not the really significant point. MI5 chiefs have given speeches in the past that were targeted at the press and duly published and broadcast widely. What was significant was Parker’s choice of newspaper. By picking The Guardian, Parker was targeting readers of a paper that include some of the most ardent critics and active campaigners against the huge expansion of the – largely unaccountable – resources and powers of the UK intelligence community.

In the interview, which was widely picked up across the rest of the media, Parker made an erudite case for the value of MI5’s work in an unstable world – and identified numerous threats. From jihadists – notably 3,000 “violent Islamic extremist in the UK, mostly British”. From cyber and other dangers from the land of Putin – “Russia is at work across Europe and in the UK today. It is MI5’s job to get in the way of that.” And he cited a resurgence of Republican terrorism in Northern Ireland. Parker has taken his cogent if one-sided argument to his sternest critics.

Criticised: Edward Snowden. Laura Poitras / Praxis Films, CC BY

The Guardian reporters did tax him on his current position on the paper’s publication of the Snowden material from 2013 which won it a Pulitizer Prize – but condemnation from the government, as well as the paper’s visceral Fleet Street enemies The Mail, The Sun, The Times and The Telegraph. And, of course, the intelligence lobby – notably Parker himself.

Has his opinion changed? Resolutely not. He held his own on a number of other questions with no further concessions to accountability or civil liberties. He said that MI5 has stopped 12 terrorist operations in the UK in the past three years but neither the Guardian reporters nor its readers are in any position to challenge that assertion.

Public face of spying

What this interview demonstrates is the increasing sophistication of the intelligence lobby and its media engagement. It is worth remembering that it was less than a quarter of a century ago that the government changed its policy of never revealing details of intelligence work or the names of intelligence chiefs.

Stella Rimington was the first MI5 director-general to be publicly named. MI5

Shortly after MI5 was acknowledged legally, the name of the director-general of MI5 – Stella Rimingtonwas revealed officially for the first time in 1993.

Since then, the intelligence community, which had once had no official engagement with the public sphere, has learned to use it to effect. Sceptics may say that Parker agreed to the interview to influence the House of Lords’ vote on the Investigatory Powers Bill. But the awful truth is that Parker does not need to lobby for the Bill. Backed by a prime minister who, as home secretary, made it her business to get an unadulterated version of the Investigatory Powers Bill into law, there is little danger of any changes being made. This is a draconian piece of legislation the like of which we have not seen before, with too few safeguards and an accountability system that is still not independent enough.

Whether the interview was a chance to fire a shot across the bows of the Russians or not, Parker’s interview for the Guardian was a complete publicity win for him. The Guardian “interrogation” produced nothing substantial. At one point, the reporters excitedly teased out of the lofty (“well over 6ft”) Parker new details of his Newcastle comprehensive school and Cambridge University background and then stated that MI5 has been traditionally drawn from the public school elite.

Former MI5 director-general, Eliza Manningham-Butler. MI5

That demonstrates a worrying lack of knowledge of MI5 ethnography which has tended to be different from MI6 and GCHQ. MI5 may have changed from the Spycatcher days of being staffed by former British and colonial special branch and military people – but anyone who has had contact with MI5 staff in more recent years knows that recruits are diverse, often ex-teachers or ex-City types from redbrick or lesser universities who want a bit more purpose and excitement in their lives.

Aside from Eliza Manningham-Buller, not many of the chiefs were “posh”.

This is a small but important point about the quality of national security reporting. We have very little information about how the intelligence community now operates as even the most up-to-date Snowden document is now four years old. So Parker was able to make a strong case for the imminent 25% increase in MI5 staffing and commensurate other resources – all underpinned by the IPB.

Those who seek more transparency and accountability for intelligence may feel a little chagrined at the emergence of a lobby so able to dominate the public sphere. Never before have government and its intelligence services had such powers and techniques of invasive mass surveillance available – and thus the potential to control the population as a whole and those who dissent in particular – yet with so little accountability by parliament or the fourth estate.