Leaked report reveals concerns from four former intelligence chiefs

A leaked report from four former heads of Britain’s national security agencies has sparked fresh questions about the values and independence of the intelligence-gathering services.

The assessment, which was issued last year and was shared with senior politicians in the security establishment, warned of the risks to national security posed by agency staff practising “selective or selective reporting”.

The report, produced by the office of the Head of State at the time, has been described as “rare and worrying”, with key details redacted from the report to protect individuals whose identities have now been exposed.

The Guardian has learned that the report warned that the security agencies were struggling to identify the risk of people intentionally giving disinformation to the intelligence services in order to destabilise politics and foreign policy.

It also suggested that the British government was paying the costs of the recruitment of hundreds of so-called “operational spooks”, people working behind the scenes in the secret agencies, who were training officers to be “operational technologists”.

The report, written by the former head of MI5, Jonathan Evans, and the former head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, the former National Security Adviser, Sir Kim Darroch, and the former head of GCHQ, Robert Hannigan, was produced after a months-long inquiry into the world of spy work, known as the Gatwick Files.

The files were leaked to the Guardian and the Observer in 2014, leading to the resignation of Evans. They included a briefing seen by the Guardian that was designed to prepare British intelligence officials for questioning over mass surveillance.

It was revealed last year that Evans, who led MI5 between 2006 and 2013, had been kept in the dark about how the papers were leaked. However, the two other former MI6 chiefs say the intelligence industry risks becoming a “hired gun” for foreign interests.

Last week, Cabinet Office minister Ben Wallace said the key panel that approves major government appointments to intelligence agencies had been extended by almost a year to June 2019.

The panel was originally supposed to have its 25 members trimmed to 20, but the extension will allow it to consider more appointments. Wallace also said that a “more decisive process” would be used to cut the teams working on safeguarding communications systems. He was expected to announce the proposals later this month.

GCHQ’s Edward Llewellyn said that the inclusion of the Gatwick Files in a confidential report, in which the panel had discussed the damage caused by leakages, was “troubling”.

“Intelligence lives on trust. Anyone who compromises the integrity of the operations will not be taken seriously. I urge people to be careful of who they delegate sensitive information to,” he said.

“We take the health of our work very seriously. If there are concerns about the credibility of those who handle our information, I can assure the public that we will act on them.”

Darroch said the content of the paper was “extremely serious”. He added: “The reports confirm that the intelligence community is feeling the pressure. However, they also highlight the complex challenges of changing times in which we must innovate and adapt to new technologies and greatly increased levels of public and media scrutiny.”

The role of the panel, which was not established by this government, is to discuss nominations for commissioning the intelligence professionals.

A spokesman for Sawers said: “As has already been said, the [previous] chairman, in close consultation with the panel, made some changes which are considered to be important for his successor. The Panel reviewed the content and identified that a number of deficiencies required further discussion. The chairman will act on those issues, with the aim of ensuring future recruitment is extremely rigorous.”

Hannigan said: “It is extremely worrying that the remarks of these agents, who hold considerable expertise, should have been so embarrassingly leaked. Although there is no need to comment further, it is important that those with responsibility for government appointments in the intelligence industry follow this advice. The intelligence community is demanding an important role in government. It must be trusted by ministers and parliament.”

Llewellyn added: “It is only right that the data, and by extension the people with access to it, should not be revealed to those who put their trust in the agencies.”

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