Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 29 - 39)




  29. Mr Bickford, welcome. When we last met it was when some of us had lunch with Mrs Rimington six years ago. I think I am the only survivor of that expedition. This is the first of occasional hearings we are holding in relation to the accountability of the Security Services. We have a dispute (running for about six or seven years) with the Government over the mechanism for accountability. Every so often we give the strings a little pull and this is one occasion when we are going to do that. May I first of all ask you to describe your background as a legal adviser to the Security Service?

  (Mr Bickford) Do you mean my broad background?

  30. Yes. How did you become legal adviser to the Security Services?
  (Mr Bickford) I am a solicitor by profession. I was in private practice for five years. Then I joined the Foreign Office. I spent about three and a half years in Berlin as legal adviser to the British military government there. I came back to the Foreign Office and was dealing with defence, NATO, UN issues, and also issues of organised crime with the American Government. At about the time of the Bettaney and Peter Wright problems Sir Anthony Duff, who had been asked to go in and deal with MI5, asked if I would become legal adviser there to deal with the problems, and that is how I took the job in 1987.

  31. What does the role of being a legal adviser entail in broad terms?
  (Mr Bickford) The legal adviser is also director in the agency. The legal department deals with the normal high policy issues: legislation, human rights issues and the administration of the Service, oversight. The day to day work involves the legal advisers working very closely alongside the operational officers, advising on the operations with regard to the law, civil rights and particularly, for the last eight or so years, the evidential problems that operations can cause when the agencies give evidence at trial.

  32. Is it fair to say that during your time with the Security Services there was a sea change in the way things were organised there?
  (Mr Bickford) Yes, I think that is right. The agencies were ready for change. They were coming out of the Cold War which had a completely different attitude to intelligence gathering. The problems of expanding terrorism, expanding problems of weapons of mass destruction and, in particular, organised crime, were coming over the horizon at that time. The agencies were also much more in the mood to become more open in their dealings. They realised that one of the problems they had in dealing with the issues was that there was no legislative base, so they both agreed that legislation was imperative, and that legislation came into being. Links with the media were established, which was one of my jobs there, and also the concept that the intelligence agencies were sitting on mounds of intelligence which was extremely useful for advising Government and protecting lives and property in terrorism cases was not actually being directed to help the law enforcement authorities prosecute terrorists and others, and we had a change in procedures and introduced procedures into the courts to allow the intelligence agencies to give evidence at trial so that this intelligence they were gathering would gain much better use than it had hitherto.

  33. A former Conservative Home Secretary said to me once that there was a lot of dead wood being cleared out in that period. Is that your impression?
  (Mr Bickford) Yes, that is very fair. I do not think it was dead wood in the sense of the members because I found the operational officers just superb. They really were brilliant and they were recognised as that internationally. The dead wood was the problems that had accrued in terms of super secrecy during the Cold War, which was necessary then. You had a single target that was intent on gathering any information it could. When the Cold War disappeared the targets began to become much more disparate and therefore the agencies were able to take advantage of the fact that there was not a single focus on them and they could become more open and have a proper legislative base to carry out their tasks much better than they had hitherto in relation for instance to terrorism.

  34. Is it fair to say that they had become very introspective?
  (Mr Bickford) I do not think they were introspective. I think that they had a single focus and the single focus was the defeat of Communism. They had to defeat Communism through also dealing with subversion. These were very difficult issues. That single focus could be interpreted as being introspective from the outside. From the inside I found that the balances were still there, although I think it is pretty fair to say that the balances were based on what would be awkward if it became public rather than the civil rights balances that the European Convention on Human Rights provided. When I came into the agencies that was the balance that I introduced from the legal point of view. Of course this allowed the agencies to operate much more freely. It is much more easy to create a balance in terms of civil rights than it is in terms of what might be embarrassing if it became public.

  35. The Peter Wright business suggested that they had spent a lot of time looking for subversion in their own midst rather than the world outside.
  (Mr Bickford) Yes. I think the Peter Wright affair was the absolute cataclysm which showed that this super secrecy was no longer apposite in the modern world. The world had changed. The defence against Peter Wright was obviously a great mistake. The agencies learned from that, equally as they learned from the Bettaney case, that you had to have more of a searchlight on to the activities inside the agencies, which of course led to oversight.

Mr Winnick

  36. One of the accusations—not necessarily now, one hopes, because there have been substantial changes—certainly by the Labour side in politics is really along the lines that MI5 was politically biased, that if there was a Labour Government in office it would look upon it with far greater suspicion than if a Conservative Government was in office. Of course the accusation flouted by people like Wright that Harold Wilson had been a Moscow agent seems so ludicrous that it is almost unbelievable, and yet it seems as though there were some people in senior positions in MI5—am I not right—who actually believed that nonsense?
  (Mr Bickford) If there was I did not come across it. Certainly with Tony Duff that would never have been allowed anyway. He was the most balanced man I have come across and one of the most incisive. I never came across that in the agencies at all. The whole objective from Sir Anthony's point of view was to create a modern service to bring them out of the Cold War attitudes into the new attitudes and from the legal point of view that was also the case. In a sense we were obviously constantly on the lookout for bias within the service, whether it was bias in relation to individuals or what. I cannot really recall any cases where I found that the intelligence officers were not pretty balanced people. They are selected for integrity anyway. You cannot ask an intelligence officer to go out and gather intelligence and then have him come back and tell you lies, or influence the way he gives the information because, if that is the case, your whole intelligence case starts to crumble. As I say, I found the operations of these officers brilliant, so in terms of bias I really did not find that bias. I arrived in 1987 and I know a lot of the allegations that have been made were made prior to that.

Mr Howarth

  37. Can I pursue that a little more, Chairman? Is it not the case that in the Cold War era there were a number of people active in the Labour Party whose allegiance was, shall we say, at best questionable in so far as they did seem to have some sympathy with what was going on in Soviet Russia? Although you have made it absolutely clear to us that you regarded the officers as having been wholly unbiased, was there a sense in which the service thought that there were people operating in the democratic process here who perhaps did have more than a passing interest in the success of the Communist venture?
  (Mr Bickford) That is a very difficult question to answer. The service at that time was studying subversion. Subversion was defined in certain respects and belonging to a particular subversive organisation was a matter for study. Those people who were studied were studied on the facts of the intelligence that was coming in as to whether or not they were participating in what was then a subversive organisation. I do not think I can go further than that.

  38. What you are saying is that there was a rigorous standard applied, that it was not simply picking off people because of their political opinion, but because there was a serious risk of subversion?
  (Mr Bickford) Yes, indeed. What was interesting was that when we came to legislate we actually transferred the categories of persons permitted to be investigated direct into the categories that the intelligence agencies were permitted to investigate post legislation. If you look at the Commissioner's report on the categories that exist at the moment—I have forgotten which report that is—he has been satisfied that those categories were acceptable. Certainly there were very rigorous constraints on who could be investigated.

Mr Corbett

  39. Mr Bickford, someone like me who spent many years actively campaigning to rid the world of nuclear weapons, would I be automatically regarded in those days by the agency as subversive?
  (Mr Bickford) No, certainly not.

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