(By Jonathan Browning – Bloomberg):-
Britain’s domestic intelligence service MI5 can authorize its agents to engage in criminal activities, potentially including murder, kidnap and torture, a London court ruled, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new government prepares to overhaul espionage laws.
Judges on the Investigatory Powers Tribunal declared in a majority decision that MI5 has the power to permit informants to operate in criminal groups, even if the policy itself confers no legal immunity. The case focused on powers that were only disclosed last year by then-Prime Minister Theresa May.
“The case raises one of the most profound issues which can face a democratic society governed by the rule of law, Judge Rabinder Singh said in the ruling.
The decision comes as Johnson seeks to update laws to bring them in line with the U.S. in a crackdown on spies, saboteurs and hackers working for foreign states such as Russia, North Korea and Iran. Preventing MI5 from running agents in criminal organizations “would strike at the core activities of the Security Service,” the judges said.
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The tribunal cited the agency’s own guidelines to agents and handlers that said the authorization “will be the service’s explanation and justification of its decision,” if the agent’s activities were to be scrutinized by police or other prosecution authorities.
Human rights campaigning groups including Reprieve had asked the court to grant an injunction “restraining further unlawful conduct.” The request was dismissed in a 3-2 decision, which was also the first time a dissenting opinion has ever been published in the tribunal’s 20-year history, Reprieve said.
“The IPT’s knife-edge judgment, with unprecedented published dissenting opinions, shows just how dubious the government’s secret policy is,” Maya Foa, Reprieve’s director, said in a statement. She said the groups planned to seek permission to appeal.
“The use of covert agents is an essential tool for MI5 as it carries out its job of keeping the country safe,” a spokesman for the Home Office said in a statement.
(Updates with Home Office comment in final paragraph.)