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Exclusive: ‘There will be terrorist attacks in Britain,’ says MI5 chief | UK news | The Guardian

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In the first interview of its kind, Andrew Parker talks to the Guardian about the ‘enduring threat’ to the UK, surveillance and greater public understanding

MI5 has its roots in the run-up to the first world war. In 1909, the targets were suspected agents working for German naval intelligence, the focus was on Germans living in Britain. The Daily Mail, as ever, was alert to the danger, advising readers: “If your waiter is German, refuse to be served by him.”

In the 107 years since, there have been 17 director generals of MI5. Until 1993, their identities were a state secret. And even after an emergence of sorts into the public eye, the guiding rule to their life at work was: say as little as possible and what you do say, say discreetly.

None has ever given a newspaper interview. Until now – and to the Guardian, the paper that won a Pulitzer prize for its coverage of the Edward Snowden revelations of 2013, which so angered the British and US governments, and the intelligence agencies, and prompted fierce debate around the world about mass surveillance.

Andrew Parker, the current chief, at the time spoke out forcefully about the damage he said Snowden was doing to the intelligence agencies and the help he was giving to our enemies. So has he changed his mind? Does he now recognise that Snowden was a force for good?

The MI5 building on Millbank, London.
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The MI5 building on Millbank, London. Photograph: Myung Jung Kim/PA

“Not at all,” he says. And the Guardian? Can you see why we published the story? “I have no view on that either,” he says, gripping the glass of water in his left hand a little more tightly.

“I spoke out at the time about the damage that was done to the work of British and allied intelligence agencies, about having so much about how we operate revealed to our adversaries. Secrecy is not something we need for its own sake.

“The Guardian takes a clear interest in the work we do – some of it is well informed, some less so. I am trying to create greater understanding – it matters to us that we have public consent for what we do.”

Sitting in the office of the president of the Royal Society, where he has just been the surprise guest speaker at its annual diversity conference, Parker, who has made speeches and appeared once on the BBC Today programme, has a worldview that centres on three areas of threat. The first is Islamic-inspired terror, which he calls enduring and generational.

“International terrorism in its latest shape, based on twisted ideology, brings terror to our streets and most of the developed world, including North America, Australia and Turkey,” he says.

“Currently, the flavour of it is Daesh, or Isil [Islamic State], and we still have the al-Qaida brand. This is something we have to understand: it’s here to stay. It is an enduring threat and it’s at least a generational challenge for us to deal with.”

He says the number of terror plots thwarted in the past three years stands at 12. “That sort of tempo of terrorist plot and attempts is concerning and it’s enduring. Attacks in this country are higher than I have experienced in the rest of my career – and I’ve been working at MI5 for 33 years. The reality is that because of the investment in services like mine, the UK has got good defences. My expectation is that we will find and stop most attempts at terrorism in this country.”

He lets the word “most” sink in before adding: “There will be terrorist attacks in this country. The threat level is severe and that means likely.”

The second area of threat is terrorism in Northern Ireland – from what he calls “dissident republicans of various sorts”. The last terrorist-related death was of a prison officer in March.

And the third is the covert threat from foreign governments. He is most exercised about Russia, which he says is at work across Europe and in the UK, using military means, propaganda, espionage, subversion and cyber-attacks to achieve its foreign policy aims. “It’s MI5’s job to get in the way of that.”

Parker says the threat from Russia is real – in part because it is so varied. “We see it in places such as Ukraine and the appalling brutalities in Syria.”

Parker, 54, keeps most of his background under wraps. The most obvious thing about him is that he is tall – well over 6ft. He must have got into the service before rules were introduced saying that any male over 5ft 11ins – or female over 5ft 8ins – ought not to be taken on as surveillance officers because they would stand out in a crowd. They also say agents should not have any visible tattoos for the same reason. Parker passes that test.

But when asked, he tells us that he comes from Newcastle and went to a comprehensive school before getting a degree in natural sciences from Cambridge University.

Andrew Parker
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Parker is a fan of wildlife photography. ‘It’s a good way to unwind’, he says. Photograph: MI5/PA

That is the first ever mention of Newcastle and a comprehensive education. Those origins are in stark contrast to most of his predecessors, who generally glided through top public schools. Even the women. And that is one of the reasons he says he is interested in diversity, because the agency should reflect the country it is working in – for practical reasons.

With budget increases that mean 1,000 more officers will be brought in over the next five years, he says his aim is to get the gender balance to 50-50. Recruitment of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) candidates is running at 14%, similar to the national average.

Parker says: “We need to be able to do surveillance of terrorists. We have to approach, cultivate and recruit people to be agents to work for us. That does not work so well if everybody looks like me.”

He says that because of the sophisticated threat, MI5 needs to operate at the cutting edge of technology. Current jobs on offer include: cyber-risk accreditor, senior business analyst, information architect, problem analyst, covert technical operations specialist, and security architect.

But the issue of mass surveillance will not go away. The investigatory powers bill – where Labour has a chequered history – was before the Lords on Monday. Critics, including the Guardian, argue that it goes too far in allowing access to personal data. The Economist put it like this: the government has been caught between the civil liberties lobby and the spies. It has chosen the spies.

Parker said he is troubled by this characterisation. “This suggests MI5 is someway on a seesaw, that we are on one end of the seesaw wanting more and more intrusion and the privacy lobby [is] protecting rights. We have to be balanced by civil rights and we are firmly committed to finding the right balance.”

And what about the finding of the investigatory powers tribunal, which said security agencies unlawfully collected personal data for 17 years – from 1998 to 2015? The tribunal concluded this contravened article 8 of the European convention on human rights – the right to privacy for an individual and his or her family.

Parker says other independent reviews supported the case for bulk data collection. “It is vital to me that in the internet age we are able to look at the data to find these people who mean this country harm.”

He has done three years as director general. The usual term is about five years. So will he pen his autobiography and write novels in the manner of Stella Rimington? “I’ve no such plans,” he says.

His sparse biographical notes on the MI5 website identify wildlife photography as a passion. “It’s a good way to unwind.”

And what about television portrayals of his profession? Does he watch Hunted, the Channel 4 programme where members of the public go on the run trying to evade surveillance specialists – and where the watchers have most of the cards?

“I generally don’t watch those shows,” he says. “They are not usually an accurate depiction of the work we do. But, there again, I’m not sure I want to see one.”

Sorgente: Exclusive: ‘There will be terrorist attacks in Britain,’ says MI5 chief | UK news | The Guardian

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