MI6 has been accused of “inappropriate interference” after two of its officers allegedly asked a chief clerk at the investigatory powers tribunal to conceal secret material relating to the agency from its presiding judges.
The spy agency was forced to apologise after the incident, which took place in relation to a court case about whether fellow agency MI5 can authorise informants to participate in murder, torture or other serious crimes.
The embarrassing episode occurred in March 2019 but can only be reported now after a special hearing on Monday of the tribunal, which oversees complaints against British intelligence.
The two spies had rung the tribunal secretary and according to her claimed that “various inspection reports” about MI6 had been provided in error to the tribunal and said they had unspecified concerns in relation to the material.
They then allegedly tried to ask the official if she would in effect conceal them from the tribunal’s president, Lord Justice Singh, or its other presiding members, who are all senior judges and lawyers.
The unimpressed tribunal secretary, Susan Cobb, wrote back to MI6 two days later. She complained: “It was inappropriate for your staff to seek to intervene in ongoing legal proceedings in the way they sought to do.”
The tribunal, Cobb added, had received the documents legally from another regulator, the investigatory powers commissioner, and it was of the utmost importance their assistance was not subject to “inappropriate interference” from MI6.
A chastened MI6 wrote back a week later to claim the sole purpose of the phone call had been “to understand better” the MI6-related information being circulated, and said any future concerns would be relayed via its legal team.
A senior officer of the agency – whose name was redacted – added: “Please accept my apologies for any misunderstanding that has arisen as a result of the approach made to the tribunal on this issue.”
The documents at the heart of the dispute have not been made public and it is unclear what impact disclosure would have had. But there have been long-standing concerns about how Britain’s spy agencies handle informants.
The related case is heading for the court of appeal, after the tribunal narrowly ruled by three to two in December that MI5’s policy of allowing agents and informants to participate in serious crimes to obtain information was lawful.
The practice has long been controversial. In 2012, Sir Desmond de Silva concluded in an official review that the solicitor Pat Finucane would not have been murdered in February 1989 in Belfast “had it not been for the different strands of involvement by elements of the state”.
Maya Foa, the director of human rights charity Reprieve, a party to the legal action, said: “Britain’s security services play a crucial role in keeping this country safe, but they do not get to decide what evidence a court should see.”