The UK’s foreign intelligence secret service, MI6, failed to properly disclose to the Foreign Secretary that a spy operating overseas had likely gone rogue and committed serious crimes.
Service watchdog, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office (IPCO) revealed in its annual report published on Tuesday that the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), more commonly known as MI6, had “identified a risk that the agent may be involved in serious criminality.”
MI6 had not, however, fulfilled its duty to inform the government clearly enough what it knew about the “high-risk SIS agent case overseas,” IPCO’s report (pdf) covering 2019 said.
It said the agent had initially agreed to be completely transparent and to conform to clear “red lines” on what criminal activity was authorised, the crossing of which would result in his relationship with MI6 ending.
It was when the authorisation was up for renewal six months later, IPCO said, that it “concluded that, on the basis of this new information, SIS’s ‘red lines’ had most likely been breached.”
“But the renewal submission failed to make this clear,” IPCO said.
IPCO said, however, that MI6 “did not encourage, condone or approve any such criminality on the part of their agent,” and that SIS updated the Foreign Secretary immediately following IPCO’s conclusions.
Any use of spies or covert human intelligence sources (CHIS) by law enforcement agencies has to be authorised by a designated authorising officer within that agency and in accordance with the Home Office code of practice (pdf).
Serious Errors Less Frequent
IPCO said in a statement that authorisation of the use of spies by law enforcement agencies had decreased year on year since 2017, down from 1,958 authorisations in 2018 to 1,866 in 2019.
It also said that serious errors were less frequent in 2019 than in 2018.
“Of the 14 serious error investigations reviewed by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner in 2019, the Commissioner determined that serious harm or prejudice had occurred in four,” it said.
Despite the lapses, Sir Brian Leveson said in a statement he was delighted to present his first annual report as Investigatory Powers Commissioner.
“On the whole, I have been impressed by the high level of compliance with the legislation and Codes of Practice,” he said.
“I am confident that we, both IPCO and OCDA [Office for Communications Data Authorisations], can continue to provide a high standard of scrutiny and oversight to ensure that the use of covert powers within the UK fully complies with its human rights obligations,” he added.
IPCO’s report comes while the CHIS bill to confirm a set of safeguards, including human rights compliance, and creating a statutory basis for the serious crime-fighting tactic of allowing undercover agents to engage in criminality to secure the trust of those they are investigating, is yet to be made law.
It has also faced criticism from campaigners who said it does not go far enough in specifying exactly which crimes can be authorised under it.
They are set to continue a legal challenge in the Court of Appeal in January.