THE distinction between a “secret intelligence service” such as MI6 and a “security service”, such as MI5, is one which often defeats self-styled experts who repeatedly get them mixed up.
It is little wonder that in her appearance at the recent Foreign Affairs Select Committee meeting Nicola Sturgeon appeared to be confused about the difference between them.
The number of countries that possess their own, worldwide, secret intelligence service can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The UK is obviously one, with SIS (MI6), but most countries, including smaller European countries, do not. Almost all, however, have a domestic security service. The Nordic countries for example have excellent security services which have reputations, established over the years, for being highly secure and efficient.
In addition to knowing the difference, it is important to be fully aware of what is involved in the setting up and running of these services. Secret intelligence is information of prime importance to a country which cannot be obtained by any overt means such as diplomacy or journalism. All countries want and need secret intelligence about everything affecting their own interests and when not operating their own service they do benefit from their relationships with allies who do have such assets.
But intelligence is a closely guarded commodity and is only very cautiously shared, usually as part of a trading arrangement with trusted, efficient and valued security services which can offer interesting product or operational cooperation and most importantly have demonstrated from their own track record that they have robust internal security mechanisms which make them leak-proof and able to protect secret material. Secret intelligence is not like any other information, however sensitive, because the identities of sources whether human or technical are often matters of life or death.
No originating service will take the slightest risk with its sources. It is therefore a ruthless and hard world in which the decisions about sharing intelligence are made. Reasons are usually based on either an overwhelming need to know for the good of the originator (note, not the recipient) or a quid pro quo for something which is worth trading for. It is not a question of being liked as an historical ally or a fellow member of Nato, etc. A CIA officer with whom I was very friendly once indiscreetly told me that on their entry course they are warned “there is no such thing as a friendly liaison service”.
Those allied countries with their own intelligence services form small, closed intelligence “clubs”, which exchange intelligence on a very restricted and highly classified basis. Any intelligence circulated outside the charmed inner circle is not only given very restricted circulation but is also heavily sanitised. Even the closest of allies edit intelligence so as not to reveal sources to one another. All this adds up to a requirement on any new intelligence or security service to have to prove itself over time as worthy and safe to do business with. It can never be assumed that diplomatic or historic friendships will result in any intelligence liaison, other than the most basic and low grade, until credentials have been established.
Of course, it is not impossible to begin a new security service but it has to be realistically recognised that it demands considerable resources both human and financial. It should not be thought that a domestic security service of any standing or quality can be quickly developed from building on current Special Branch capabilities. It will take time, training and experience both to achieve the quality needed and also to demonstrate that quality to other services so that the advantages of exchanging expertise and information can be enjoyed.
In this world of global threats from terrorism and technological challenges such as cyber attack, security does not come cheap for any country. A member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Rory Stewart MP, asked Nicola Sturgeon if she realised that the infrastructure required to protect both agent identity and liaison reporting from the USA would require probably billions of pounds of investment in setting up the appropriate communications and the necessary security infrastructure which would satisfy allies before they would be prepared to share information.
I must say it is not clear from her answer that she does realise the magnitude of the tasks of providing Scotland with a domestic security service, setting aside altogether the question of an external intelligence service. She referred the committee, more than once, to Scotland’s geographical position. This seems to mean that she thinks Scotland can rely on the umbrella of GCHQ, MI6 and MI5. I believe she needs to think again. She told the committee, and obviously believed, that there would be continued shared arrangements with the rest of the UK regardless of Scotland’s independent capability. I do not think so and more importantly for Scotland she does not know.
• Baroness Ramsay was a senior officer at MI6 and a policy adviser to Labour’s John Smith