The Completely Useless and Incompetent Culture of MI5


As we do nearly every time Adam Curtis opens his mouth, as it were, we are posting a little something about his latest post over on his BBC blog. This one’s a real hoot and a serious time commitment. It deals with the innate idiocy of having a state-funded domestic counterintelligence agency, with Britain’s notoriously corrupt and inefficient ‘Security Service’ MI5 as the case history. It’s a fascinating study in paranoia and failure that makes the internal workings of Microsoft seem efficient by comparison.

Here’s his introduction:

The recent revelations by the whistleblower Edward Snowden were fascinating. But they – and all the reactions to them – had one enormous assumption at their heart.

That the spies know what they are doing.

It is a belief that has been central to much of the journalism about spying and spies over the past fifty years. That the anonymous figures in the intelligence world have a dark omniscience. That they know what’s going on in ways that we don’t.

It doesn’t matter whether you hate the spies and believe they are corroding democracy, or if you think they are the noble guardians of the state. In both cases the assumption is that the secret agents know more than we do.

But the strange fact is that often when you look into the history of spies what you discover is something very different.

It is not the story of men and women who have a better and deeper understanding of the world than we do. In fact in many cases it is the story of weirdos who have created a completely mad version of the world that they then impose on the rest of us.*

I want to tell some stories about MI5 – and the very strange people who worked there. They are often funny, sometimes rather sad – but always very odd.

The stories also show how elites in Britain have used the aura of secret knowledge as a way of maintaining their power. But as their power waned the “secrets” became weirder and weirder.

They were helped in this by another group who also felt their power was waning – journalists. And together the journalists and spies concocted a strange, dark world of treachery and deceit which bore very little relationship to what was really going on. And still doesn’t.

Aside from dealing with (or being run by) Soviet spies in Britain (thankfully – given its length – the nearly exclusive focus of Curtis’ post), MI5 also became tasked with monitoring and even infiltrating other organizations at home. In a mirror reflection of the FBI’s COINTELPRO they expanded their operations to surveilling many groups: from clear non-threats, including the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the people who gave us the peace sign), Friends of the Earth, Liberty (NCCL, the UK equivalent to the ACLU); to actual dangerous hate groups, including the National Front. As pointed to in the comments to Curtis’ post, Channel 4 ran a documentary on the agency in the mid-1980s, while MI5 were receiving a great deal of scrutiny over their excessive wiretapping activities. The piece is of its time and culture, and there is much that could be said about the presentation… It’s as boring as it’s fascinating. And it all seems so familiar, given recent events.

What’s old is new again. Adam Curtis starts out with Snowden and brings us LeCarre somewhere in the middle. I tried, but could not come up with a good clip of the tailgunner Snowden from Catch 22 – his guts torn apart and complaining about the cold – but, I can bring you plenty of LeCarre.

Even without a new book on related matters, it’s a safe bet that literary spymaster John LeCarre would get heavily name-checked in the page filling debate following Snowden-gate and the many revelations on our lovely current surveillance culture. Things quickly turned strange in ways only understood by select members of the fourth estate that still hold substantial expense accounts. So, without further comment, here are some posts from that staring contest (and vaguely related items) in sequential order:

John le Carré: ‘I was a secret even to myself’

The influence of spies has become too much. It’s time politicians said no

Even Le Carré’s latest fiction can’t do justice to Snowden

Spymaster Le Carré challenges Guardian over its duty of care to Edward Snowden

John le Carré has lost the plot over Edward Snowden

OK. So there’s all that. The words ‘spy fiction’ flow so well together, as the truth is much more elusive than most things in our sad subjective reality. One man, who lived most of his life in total opposition to all this nonsense, has left us; and, his passing seems to have been barely noticed. He was Garry Davis, Man of No Nation, Citizen of The World. Garry had a deep belief in that great document The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s a short bit, with a mere 30 articles, that all the world leaders that keep peddling this ‘if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear’ bullshit at us – by way of justifying an unaccountable system of surveillance, detention, judgement and drone strikes – might want to give a read.

*Emphasis provided by Wow Cool to enhance your reading pleasure