[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Thursday, 3 May 2007, 12:40 GMT 13:40 UK
MI5 faces 'new realities' of terror
By Gordon Corera
BBC security correspondent

MI5's headquarters
MI5: under scrutiny - and under pressure
It could have been so different. The story could have been about a textbook operation by MI5 and the police in discovering, penetrating and disrupting the fertiliser bomb plot.

It was an operation that on one level was incredibly successful.

Five men were convicted and what could have been a major loss of life was stopped.

But the story of that success has been drowned out by questions over whether MI5 had "missed" two of the 7 July bombers who appeared in the surveillance of the fertiliser plotters.

As a result, the last few days have been an uncomfortable introduction to intense media and public scrutiny for an organisation which once made a point of staying in the shadows.

The issues surrounding terrorism have become the focus of intense public debate

Those close to MI5 maintain it has nothing to hide and say that many of the accusations are based on a lack of understanding of the pressures and reality of counter-terrorism work, the daily decisions about who to follow and who not to follow, and the problems of fragmentary and partial intelligence.

But it has not stopped questions about what happened and whether the right information was passed to the right people, both before 7/7 and afterwards to those investigating it.

Has all this damaged the security service's reputation?

'Cold War days'

It's hard to judge, but it is a reminder that the issues surrounding terrorism have become the focus of intense public debate, with many taking entrenched positions, and they have also become politicised.

Those on the inside recognise that this kind of debate and scrutiny is not going to go away and is part of a new reality that MI5 will have to operate in.

When it operated largely in secret during the Cold War, both its successes and failures tended to be known only to a few (with the odd, very high-profile exception when spies were unmasked), but now every action will be picked over by friends and foes alike.

When bombs go off, people will ask whether they could have been prevented. And when individuals are caught planning attacks, they will stand trial and the role of MI5 will be exposed in the public spotlight.

The security service clearly knew the barrage of criticism was coming

This happened during the fertiliser plot trial, where officers gave evidence with their identities disguised and reams of surveillance were shown in court.

The questions that surfaced post-7/7 may also resurface in the future.

MI5 is growing fast - by next year it will have doubled in size since the 9/11 attacks on the US - but it still faces major pressures on resources.

It is now understood that MI5 is watching something like 2,000 individuals linked to terrorist activity and sources say there are daily decisions about who to follow and who not to follow.

It's acknowledged that if another attack happens, it is not just possible, but likely, that the bombers may once again be found to have appeared in the context of other investigations.

Sufficient scrutiny?

There are also questions of public confidence in the scrutiny of Britain's intelligence and security services.

It is the job of the Intelligence and Security Committee to scrutinise their work, but questions about its own performance and capability have been around for some time.

Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer at Toddington Services
2 February 2004
21 February 2004
28 February 2004
23 March 2004

Unlike other select committees, it reports to 10 Downing Street rather than directly to the Commons.

Over the issue of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction the committee issued a report, but was then forced in its next annual report to complain that it had not actually seen or been sent Joint Intelligence Committee reports on the subject (although it said they would not have changed its overall judgement).

In the end, a far more in-depth study of the Iraq intelligence had to be carried out by the Butler inquiry.

This heightened questions about whether the committee has the investigative capacity to exercise effective oversight - its staff is tiny and its powers limited compared with its far more weighty equivalent in the US Congress.

A problem for intelligence agencies may well be that if the body which oversees them is not considered sufficiently credible, there is no other mechanism to convince the public that the organisations are being held to account.

These challenges will no doubt be discussed in Whitehall in coming weeks, but with an ongoing - and increasing - threat, events could quickly transform that debate.

For the security service clearly knew the barrage of criticism was coming, but believes that the general public retains confidence in it and wants it to get on with its job.

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific