Rights groups welcomed a proposed new British law that will create a legal basis for undercover informants to break the law when needed in the fight against serious crimes, but said that it doesn’t go far enough in specifying which crimes could be authorized.
Secret PolicyHowever, prior to legal cases brought against the government, it was not publicly known that MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, had been authorizing informants to commit crimes under a secret policy that was not subject to meaningful oversight, rights watchdog Privacy International (PI) said.
PI and other right groups, who have been challenging the government in the courts for more transparency, said the bill’s lack of details about which crimes could be authorized was concerning.
Oversight and LimitationsDirector-general of MI5 Ken McCallum said informant lawbreaking was necessary to "gain the critical information needed to save lives.”
"Since March 2017, MI5 and Counter Terror Police have together thwarted 27 terror attacks. Without the contribution of human agents, be in no doubt, many of these attacks would not have been prevented," he said in a statement.
Lynne Owens, director general of the National Crime Agency, said informants are authorized to engage in criminal activity only when “absolutely necessary and proportionate" and under "great care and scrutiny."
Oversight is provided by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, Sir Brian Leveson.
PI and Reprieve, who launched a legal challenge against the secret MI5 policy in 2017, do not object to the authorizing of informants to commit crimes per se.
"We are not challenging the fact that the use of informants can be a very useful tool to actually fight organized crime," Ilia Siatitsa, program director and legal officer at PI, told The Epoch Times.
"But what we are challenging is the way the bill regulates the use of informants, including the lack of specific limitations with regard to what kind of acts can be authorized," she added.
Another concern is oversight.
"Right now there is no double lock around these authorizations, so while you need a judicial warrant in other cases, to use an [MI5] informant, actually all you need is a supervisor's approval," she said.
Siatitsa also said that informants themselves who are acting in "precarious" situations needed clear parameters and should know whether they'd be prosecuted if they went beyond what was pre-authorized.
The FBI and Canada's intelligence service, CSIS, have such safeguards in place already, according to the joint statement.
Legal ProceedingsSatitisa believes the new bill is related to Privacy International’s litigation, which challenged the legal basis of MI5’s authorization of informants to commit crimes.
"Before our case, the use of informants by MI5 was entirely secret," she said. "It was only when we went to court that the government revealed some of this information."
PI, Reprieve, and co-complainants Committee on the Administration of Justice and the Pat Finucane Centre, who joined the case in 2018, are continuing their litigation.
"Even if the bill has passed [into law by then] we are still challenging to what extent the use of informants by MI5 was lawful before the bill came to the fore," she said.
"The public has the right to know what type of criminal acts MI5's policy authorizes in the UK. Our democracy and our most fundamental rights are at risk if the government permits MI5 agents to commit crimes with impunity,” Siatitsa said in the joint statement.
The CHIS bill will not act retroactively to address the way MI5 used informants from as early as the 1990s, nor allegations of past abuses of authorizations by informants, Siatitsa explained.
Other agencies that will be covered under the CHIS bill include the seven agencies and departments of the UK Intelligence Community (UKIC), the police, the Home Office immigration and border forces, the military, the Ministry of Justice, the Food Standards Agency, the Environment Agency, and others.