Magazine article The Spectator

MI5 Is Much Enhanced since Crevice: But It Still Can't Make Guarantees

Magazine article The Spectator

MI5 Is Much Enhanced since Crevice: But It Still Can't Make Guarantees

Article excerpt

For almost two years, Westminster has been abuzz with what many MPs believed to be an explosive secret. The ringleader of the 7 July London bombings, Mohammed Sidique Khan, was not a socalled 'clean skin' who came out of the blue.

Instead, he had been bugged, photographed and followed during an MI5 investigation into a thwarted fertiliser-bomb plot more than a year earlier. 'When this gets out, ' one shadow minister told me last summer, 'it could bring down the government.' Well, it got out on Monday, when five men were sentenced to life over the fertiliser plot intercepted in what police called Operation Crevice in March 2004. Arguably, it was MI5's greatest success -- yet the next day's headlines suggested precisely the reverse.

The media were finally allowed to disclose the link between the Crevice investigation and the London bombings -- and that Khan had slipped through MI5's fingers, keeping his head down for a year or more before making his murderous comeback.

Yet, politically, this is nowhere near as toxic as Conservatives hoped. Ministers, too, have been preparing for this day for years.

MI5 has been transformed and has a new director-general in Jonathan Evans. The Home Office has been split in two, and a new Office for Counter-Terrorism and Security is now up and running. It is hard to call for heads to roll, or another shake-up.

The sole option open to David Davis, the shadow home secretary, is to demand an independent judicial inquiry.

An investigation into MI5's dealings with Khan has already been carried out by the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. It may not have seen the full set of photographs of Khan, but it was certainly told that these images existed. And in assessing the background to the investigation, and the state of MI5 at the time, it found no fault with the spooks. This was, after all, an agency then working with just 2,000 staff. There were more people assigned by the government to answer tax-credit hotlines than working for MI5 on the war on terror.

To trail one terror suspect occupies about 50 intelligence operatives, and MI5 had identified 55 people around Omar Khyam and the six others who stood trial. The service needed to prioritise, and thus divided suspects into two groups: a cohort of 15 who were known to have explicitly discussed acts terrorism, and the remaining 40. Khan and Shehzad Tanweer -- another of the 7 July bombers -- were among this latter group.

MI5 found out only after the 7 July bombs that they were fellow graduates of the alQa'eda terror schools in Pakistan.

If Mr Davis were to be granted his judicial inquiry, it would soon find the MI5 of today bears little resemblance to that which let Khan slip. It has 50 per cent more staff, and will hit its target of 3,500 by the end of next year. Old rivalries with other agencies have been buried.

Staff from MI6 and Special Branch now have desks in its Thames House headquarters, and while the number of suspected plots has quadrupled to 200 over four years, MI5 has more money, know-how and manpower.

The change in staff numbers conceals a faster cultural shift. Once, the service did everything in-house. An agent could be assigned to the Belfast bureau one year and the accounts department the next. Now, outsiders run its back-office functions and even handle the 100,000 jobs applications it gets each year for the 400 vacancies. …

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