The National Security Bill will give us the tools needed to counter modern threats
(Stephen Barnes/Politics / Alamy Stock Photo)
Since I joined the Lords in 2008, there has been plenty of legislation designed to strengthen our ability to deal with terrorism, following 9/11.
Now we have a substantial piece of legislation to scrutinise which seeks to address a longstanding and, in my view, a greater and more insidious threat to our national security, than from states with hostile intent. Such states seek to steal our secrets, not just government ones but also commercial ones, including intellectual property, causing damage to our economy. They also attempt to undermine our parliamentary democracy and to erode the values we share by spreading lies and dissent.
In the last two decades, the focus of the intelligence and security agencies has, understandably, been terrorism. But when I joined MI5, the priority was different. It was the height of the Cold War and the intelligence community, alongside our defence forces, concentrated on countering that war, with MI5 focussing on hostile intelligence activity in the United Kingdom. The main effort was against the Soviet Union and the countries of the Warsaw Pact. We faced an extensive intelligence attack. That attack, despite the hopes raised by the collapse of the Soviet Union, has never gone away. Instead, it has evolved and diversified. Our traditional adversaries have been supplemented by new challengers and the hostile activity of today is of a greater breadth and depth. The current legislative framework, primarily designed to address German espionage in the run up to two world wars, is no longer adequate to deal with it. Indeed, a lot of modern hostile activity isn’t even a criminal offence under existing legislation.
The intelligence community’s work has, rightly, to be grounded in the law, properly overseen and authorised. It also needs proper tools to counter the threats of today. So I strongly welcome the intentions of this bill which comes after work done by the Law Commission and the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, followed by a public consultation. As with any legislation that deals with security, some of the clauses will be challenged and amended. But let there be no doubt of the pressing need to legislate.
Today state threats are on a scale that could only be imagined in the past. Modern technology means that large quantities of data can be stolen in seconds, a far cry from the days of a human spy photographing documents clandestinely and laboriously. States seek strategic and economic advantage by stealing massive amounts of information, for example from our science and technology. The advantages to us all of being digitally connected can also make us vulnerable to disinformation, for example through the cynical anti-vaxer propaganda, pumped out by the Russian cyber machine during Covid. Whilst much of this activity is covert and therefore invisible to most citizens, the murder of Alexander Litvinenko and the Salisbury attacks highlight the lengths to which Russia will go. And that was before its invasion of Ukraine.
Today state threats are on a scale that could only be imagined in the past
The prime aim of the legislation is to make it harder for states to take hostile actions against the UK, to steal our information and to interfere in our society, including with our parliamentary democracy. The bill produces a range of new offences plus updated tools for the intelligence community. For example, it will, for the first time, be an offence to be an undeclared foreign spy working in the UK. It will be an offence for foreign powers to interfere with the UK’s democracy and civil society through covert influence, disinformation and attacks against our electoral processes.
The new Foreign Registration Scheme aims to reveal such influence on our politics and to help our agencies disrupt and, crucially, deter foreign powers from acting covertly in the UK. These measures will strengthen the ability of the intelligence community, the police and others to protect us all from today’s state threats.
Baroness Manningham-Buller is a crossbench peer and former director general of MI5
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