Did MI6 and GCHQ allow spies to commit crimes in the UK? Intelligence chiefs may have illegally authorised British agents to carry out acts that were unlawful, tribunal hears


MI6 is able to authorise spies it recruits overseas to commit crimes

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal say MI6 and GCHQ may have acted illegally 

They cannot legally permit criminal operations by agents acting in the UK

Case centres on the 'third direction', referring to criminal conduct guidelines.

According to the report coming from Mail online, Spy chiefs may have illegally authorised British agents to commit serious crimes in the UK, a tribunal heard.

MI6 – the foreign intelligence service – is able to authorise spies it recruits overseas to commit crimes. But it cannot permit criminal operations by agents in the UK.

A ruling by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal said MI6 and GCHQ informants may have been allowed ‘to participate in criminal activity in the UK’, and raised the question of ‘whether that conduct was lawful’.

The evidence emerged in a case brought by civil liberties groups including Reprieve, the Pat Finucane Centre, Privacy International and the Committee for the Administration of Justice in Belfast.

The case centres on the ‘third direction’, referring to guidelines permitting agents to become involved in criminal conduct.

Ben Jaffey QC, who represented civil liberties groups, told the hearing: ‘It was very difficult to believe this was occurring.’

The IPT, which oversees complaints against government surveillance and spy operations, disclosed the ruling despite government attempts to keep the matter secret.

It also said questions raised should be disclosed to campaigners, who have been fighting for greater legal clarity over what the intelligence agencies are allowed to do.

Maya Foa, Reprieve’s Executive Director, said: ‘We’ve learned today that MI6 unilaterally assumed the power to authorise unchecked agent law-breaking on UK soil, going far beyond the rules set for them by Parliament. In light of this secret power-grab, Parliament should think twice about giving assent to the Government’s CHIS bill, which places no express limits on agent lawbreaking even for crimes like murder, torture, or rape.’

It comes after a new report by Britain’s intelligence watchdog found MI6 failed to make clear to the Foreign Secretary that one of its spies overseas had gone rogue and engaged in serious criminal activity.

The intelligence agency had been asking for renewed authorisation of the agent’s activities without being clear about the agent’s behaviour, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office (IPCO) latest annual report says.

IPCO has censured MI6, or the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), for a range of shortcomings in its handling of its agents in the report, saying the Government ‘ought carefully to consider’ if tighter oversight is needed over the operation of Britain’s spies abroad.

The watchdog said the case of the rogue spy had come to light in a review of a submission made by MI6 under Section 7 of the Intelligence Services Act, used to allow British personnel to commit criminal acts in other countries.

IPCO reviewed the case of what it called the ‘high-risk’ agent, who SIS had discovered ‘may be involved in serious criminality overseas’. 

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