Thursday, 29 October 2015

Failing the Intelligence Test

What links the now-discredited charity Kids Company, the English FA's failed bid to host the 2018 World Cup, and the warning by the head of MI5 that we face a "three-dimensional threat" from foreign, domestic and online terrorism? The answer is intelligence. That Labour and Conservative ministers ignored repeated warnings over Kids Company tells us that intelligence is easily dismissed or undervalued if it fails to fit our prior assumptions or current preferences. I suspect the long-awaited Chilcot report, which we are told may appear next summer, will make similar observations in respect of the non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

It is now clear that government ministers, dating back a decade, were aware that Kids Company was badly run and delivering a poor return for public money. It is also clear that the charity's founder, Camila Batmanghelidjh, was a skilled manipulator who was able to use the threat of bad media coverage to secure renewed funding. It would be easy to lay the blame fully on Batmanghelidjh, implying that ministers were incapable of standing up to her "bullying" - and no doubt some politicians will delight in monstering Alan Yentob, the chairman of the charity's board of governors, as a way of ensuring collateral damage to the BBC - but this would be to ignore why the government was willing to go along with the charade for so long.

This was not just the Tories commitment to "the big society" blowing up in their faces, or even further evidence of David Cameron's now well-established personal weakness for chancers and media-tarts. New Labour were equally culpable in encouraging and indulging Batmanghelidjh, and the root cause of that appears to have been a combination of her early success in securing sponsorship by City institutions, including Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse, and a belief in "early intervention" that chimed with New Labour's Sure Start programme. Though Batmanghelidjh was an absurd figure, prone to spouting pseudoscience and claiming to be a practising psychotherapist, she was in tune with the dominant ideology of self-help and business philanthropy, and her egomania probably didn't seem out of place in the circles she frequented.

The apparent admission by Sepp Blatter that Fifa had planned to give the 2018 World Cup finals to Russia all along, and that the English FA therefore wasted millions on its fruitless campaign, might appear a more ridiculous example of self-delusion. Many will no doubt use this as a stick with which to beat Greg Dyke and the FA, but this would be to ignore the wider failure by anyone in the intelligence community to pre-warn the organisation. Remember the "three lions" who went as supplicants to FIFA's Swiss lair? James Bond may be a fiction, but SIS (aka MI6) does exist and is meant to be alert to the UK's foreign interests in all their dimensions, including "national embarrassment". Given the contemporary rumours of a stitch-up and FIFA's track record of corruption, the decision to involve the PM and a royal in the bid was nothing if not a massive intelligence failure.

Which brings us neatly to MI5. Andrew "Nosey" Parker, the head of the outfit, tells us that Islamic State is planning a mass attack on Britain and that the level of the "terror threat" is now greater than at any point in his career. Somewhat more soberly, Ewan MacAskill in the Guardian notes that this, along with some recent PR for GCHQ in the Times, comes ahead of the expected publication of the government’s investigatory powers bill which will indirectly determine remits and budgets. While Parker's plea is little more than a traditional scare, moderated by some typically ambiguous language ("there should be no more MI5 than is necessary to keep the country safe"), the emphasis on the online threat plays to continuing media gullibility on the subject, recently boosted by the "cybercrime" hyperbole around the TalkTalk hack.

MacAskill proposes a judicious approach to the competing claims: "Few suggest that GCHQ and its sister agencies are some sort of Dark Tower, its staff intent on routinely abusing human rights. But there is still a debate to be had over where the line should be drawn between total security and total privacy." The definition of the line assumes the capability to fully exploit the resources on one side of it, but the examples of Kids Company and the 2018 World Cup bid should surely prompt the question of whether the security services (and their political masters) are actually competent in exercising this capability. This is the real "third dimension": there's what we know, what we don't know, and what we choose to unknow.


  1. Herbie Destroys the Environment30 October 2015 at 17:40

    We all know the Iraq war was a monstrous crime.

    But many people wanted to dress up their criminality in humanitarian clothing. All mass crimes follow this pattern.

    The public are just as culpable. I have zero tolerance for people who say they were duped.

    I knew Iraq wasn't a threat. i said before the war started that the only reason they were invading iraq was because they didn't have weapons of mass destruction.

    Those who supported the war, supported mass murder. Simple as that.

    "..even further evidence of David Cameron's now well-established personal weakness for chancers and media-tarts. New Labour were equally culpable in encouraging and indulging Batmanghelidjh,"

    New labour were not just equally culpable, they created the whole culture in the first place!

    Another thing we have to thank therm for. They were more toxic to our culture than the Daily Mail.

  2. Herbie Causes Extinction1 November 2015 at 13:31

    Maybe I am a conspiracy theorist but is there any coincidence I wonder between the numerous media reported internet data leaks from talk Talk to Barclays etc etc etc?

    There must have been seven or eight separate stories.

    Seems very convenient at a time when the government are pushing through their totalitarian measures.

    I smell a rat.

    1. I suspect this is more likely to be selectivity by the media, aware of the coming debate, rather than conspiracy. The "rat" is the media's lack of scepticism over the self-interested slant put on these stories by business: cybercrime is huge, everyone is vulnerable etc.

      The truth is that most businesses are cavalier about their customers' data and contemptuous of techies who worry about security. Parliamentary time would be better devoted to a bill that mandated encryption and transactional standards rather than extending the powers of GCHQ.