MI5 has its roots in the run-up to the first world war. In 1909, the targets were suspected agents working for German naval intelligence, the focus was on Germans living in Britain. The Daily Mail, as ever, was alert to the danger, advising readers: “If your waiter is German, refuse to be served by him.”
In the 107 years since, there have been 17 director generals of MI5. Until 1993, their identities were a state secret. And even after an emergence of sorts into the public eye, the guiding rule to their life at work was: say as little as possible and what you do say, say discreetly.
None has ever given a newspaper interview. Until now – and to the Guardian, the paper that won a Pulitzer prize for its coverage of the Edward Snowden revelations of 2013, which so angered the British and US governments, and the intelligence agencies, and prompted fierce debate around the world about mass surveillance.
Andrew Parker, the current chief, at the time spoke out forcefully about the damage he said Snowden was doing to the intelligence agencies and the help he was giving to our enemies. So has he changed his mind? Does he now recognise that Snowden was a force for good?
“Not at all,” he says. And the Guardian? Can you see why we published the story? “I have no view on that either,” he says, gripping the glass of water in his left hand a little more tightly.
“I spoke out at the time about the damage that was done to the work of British and allied intelligence agencies, about having so much about how we operate revealed to our adversaries. Secrecy is not something we need for its own sake.
“The Guardian takes a clear interest in the work we do – some of it is well informed, some less so. I am trying to create greater understanding – it matters to us that we have public consent for what we do.”
Sitting in the office of the president of the Royal Society, where he has just been the surprise guest speaker at its annual diversity conference, Parker, who has made speeches and appeared once on the BBC Today programme, has a worldview that centres on three areas of threat. The first is Islamic-inspired terror, which he calls enduring and generational.
“International terrorism in its latest shape, based on twisted ideology, brings terror to our streets and most of the developed world, including North America, Australia and Turkey,” he says.
“Currently, the flavour of it is Daesh, or Isil [Islamic State], and we still have the al-Qaida brand. This is something we have to understand: it’s here to stay. It is an enduring threat and it’s at least a generational challenge for us to deal with.”
He says the number of terror plots thwarted in the past three years stands at 12. “That sort of tempo of terrorist plot and attempts is concerning and it’s enduring. Attacks in this country are higher than I have experienced in the rest of my career – and I’ve been working at MI5 for 33 years. The reality is that because of the investment in services like mine, the UK has got good defences. My expectation is that we will find and stop most attempts at terrorism in this country.”
He lets the word “most” sink in before adding: “There will be terrorist attacks in this country. The threat level is severe and that means likely.”
The second area of threat is terrorism in Northern Ireland – from what he calls “dissident republicans of various sorts”. The last terrorist-related death was of a prison officer in March.
And the third is the covert threat from foreign governments. He is most exercised about Russia, which he says is at work across Europe and in the UK, using military means, propaganda, espionage, subversion and cyber-attacks to achieve its foreign policy aims. “It’s MI5’s job to get in the way of that.”
Parker says the threat from Russia is real – in part because it is so varied. “We see it in places such as Ukraine and the appalling brutalities in Syria.”
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SOURCE: The Guardian, Paul Johnson and Ewen MacAskill