Defending Wales VII: National Security

(Title Image: BBC Wales)

Now that the general principles of a possible independent Welsh defence policy – as well as the possible structure of a Welsh Defence Forces – have been addressed, next it’s worth looking at internal security and how civil authorities can play a role in the defence of the nation, starting with intelligence/security services.

What does “National Security” actually mean?

It’s an umbrella concept whereby the government and/or government institutions protect the state from all  covert and overt threats – not just military threats. A “threat to state security” could be as simple as one political extremist with a home made bomb, right through to serious disruptions to energy supplies.

At its heart the government should do everything in its power to protect the well-being of the population without seriously infringing on civil rights (going down the path towards a police state) or political rights (going down the path towards a dictatorship).

What this means is national security policy – whilst involving the military to some degree – is often distinct from defence policy. It involves greater use of civil and government agencies, law enforcement as well as intelligence services.

In the UK (and most democracies), national security policy is implemented in such a way as to minimise disruption to the public or cause panic. It involves things like covert surveillance, the use of technology to deter threats (cyber-security), traditional human intelligence (informers) and – when justified or there’s an imminent threat to life or property – a limited use of force, whether by the police or military.

Independence & National Security Options

Decisions would have to be made very early on with regard the arrangements – probably before the military is worked out – in order to ease the concerns of the English government, and send a message to the rest of Europe, that a newly-independent Wales won’t be used as a back door to terrorists or other threats.

One of the first questions would be “Who’s in charge?”

  • Give responsibility for national security to the defence or home affairs minister – This is the simplest option, with national security responsibilities folded in to our equivalent of the Home Office. The role of defence and home affairs minister could even be combined – Jamaica has a Minister of National Security, for example. This would be a highly unusual move in Europe and would raise obvious concerns if intelligence services were directly controlled by the government, but it could also make security services more directly accountable too.
  • Full control given to a National Security Council – A cabinet-level committee made up of the head of government, relevant ministers, police chiefs, military leaders (like the Chief of Staff – Part III) and the head of the security services modelled on the US and UK equivalents. This would be useful in co-ordinating policies between government departments and dealing with multi-faceted threats. However, it could be considered overkill when the limited national security threats to Wales are taken into account, or when such threats are already being dealt with via a Civil Contingencies Committee/ “Welsh COBR” (Part VIII).
  • A (Civilian) Director of National Security – Probably the best option. A person appointed by the relevant Senedd committee to manage the security services and be held accountable for their actions and strategy. They would be a member of a National Security Council alongside the heads of the other branches of the armed forces, and would provide input on issues of intelligence, national security and police liaison. They would presumably be an expert in the field of security.

In terms of scrutiny, as mentioned in Wales & The World III, defence and foreign affairs could be scrutinised by the same committee and this would include national security issues (in closed session, similar to Westminster’s Intelligence and Security Committee). Or, national security issues could be scrutinised by a sub-committee of vetted and experienced/trusted legislators.

In terms of costs, I don’t know. The Republic of Ireland only “officially” spends about £850,000 on its Directorate of Military Intelligence (G2) annually and most of that money is suspected of being used to pay informants. I’d guess a Welsh figure would be somewhere in the region of £15-20million a year coming out of the defence and policing budgets.

Welsh Security Services

Once the issue of how the security services would be overseen and scrutinised is out of the way, the precise format would need to be outlined.

In fact, Wales already has a nascent security service.

Tarian– the all-Wales organised crime unit made up of police officers from all four police forces – carries out investigations of and provides criminal intelligence for things like organised crime, drugs, child sexual exploitation, cyber crime and fraud. This is very similar to the UK’s National Crime Agency and it’s likely Tarian would form the backbone of any Welsh intelligence service immediately upon independence, combined with the Welsh Extremism & Counter-terrorism Unit (WECTU).

Based on examples elsewhere in the world there are several options as to how the service would work in practice :

  • A civilian domestic intelligence agency (i.e. “Welsh FBI”) – This would be made up of specially-trained civilians who’ve gone through an intensive selection, vetting and training programme. They would deal entirely with domestic security and wouldn’t have an external security role except to co-operate with foreign intelligence agencies.
  • A single, stand-alone intelligence agency (both external and internal)– Again, likely to be a civilian agency but would also carry out operations overseas when required.
  • Separate internal and external intelligence agencies – A Welsh equivalent of MI5 and SIS/MI6 (or FBI and CIA). This would be more expensive and difficult to start from scratch, but it would enable officers and agents to specialise to a much greater level than they would if they dealt solely with domestic security.
  • Leave intelligence matters to the military – Essentially, a Welsh equivalent of Israel’s Aman or the Ministry of Defence’s DI section. This would be easier as many soldiers are trained to gather human intelligence and signals intelligence. It would certainly be more useful if Wales was facing an immediate external threat as they would be able to provide information to military commanders straight away.

Regardless of which option is best, the Welsh security service is likely to be quite small – maybe no more than 300 people, most of whom are likely to come from the military or the police (particularly CID) with a few security experts recruited for their skills directly from universities (i.e. cyber security specialists).

Key Responsibilities of the Security Services

Intelligence analysis – Using collected information (from multiple sources, usually secret) to predict future actions, flag up trends and determine threats to national security. It has to avoid traps – like assuming people or organisations being analysed think the same way – and requires complete objectivity and candour.

Human Intelligence & Surveillance (aka. spying and informants)
– Obtaining information from people, regardless of whether that’s through a reliable informant or obtained secretly through surveillance. This requires agents to build relationships and contacts with suspects and other assets so has an element of psychology to it.

Signals intelligence – Obtaining information through communications systems. This includes phone-tapping, e-mail interception, monitoring social media, clandestine recordings or monitoring broadcasts. There are obvious ethical considerations to consider as it’s almost always done without the prior knowledge of the target. GCHQ is the main organisation responsible in the UK.

Cyber-security – Protecting digital infrastructure from attack over the internet. This includes government databases, computer systems used by utilities companies, university research, internet service providers and individuals. Many governments now have specialist cyber-security teams or training centres while many also carry out organised cyber attacks against other countries. Wales should set up a cyber security unit (whether run by the police, military or security services) with people recruited directly from relevant or specially-designed university courses.

Intelligence-Sharing & Co-operation – This is something that seems mainly confined to the Anglophone countries (via the Five Eyes intelligence ring). Intelligence agencies on mainland Europe historically don’t have as good co-operation with civil agencies like the police or even with each other. It’s one of the main issues raised after the 2015 Paris terror attacks as police and intelligence services weren’t sharing data….but, again, there are obvious civil liberties concerns.

Advance vetting for security-sensitive positions – Most background checks are done by the Criminal Records Bureau, but top-security positions in the UK (such as SIS/MI6) use Developed Vetting (DV) which basically trawls through your personal and professional life to determine if you are suited to have access to top secret information (more on censorship and independence in Broadcasting Wales VII : Media Rating & Censorship). Anyone who requires unrestricted access to top secret or classified information would be vetted by the security services. They would probably check the backgrounds of asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants seeking permanent residency too.

Assisting investigations into serious & organised crime – These would include things Tarian are already responsible for but others too : drugs trafficking, human trafficking and modern slavery, organised crime, counter-extremism, child exploitation, cyber-crime, counter-espionage, serious fraud and possibly other things like serial killings. Agents wouldn’t have the power of arrest, but would work side-by-side with detatched police and military units to bring people to justice.

Balancing Rights with National Security

One of the more well-trodden issues in national security – particularly since the War on Terror – is how national security, counter-terrorism and intelligence policies impact civil liberties and personal freedom : Should we, as a society, accept some infringement of our rights in order to protect the state?

In an emergency and for a short period, I’d assume most people accept it; but longer-standing and permanent measures – such as (excessive) security procedures at American airports, mass monitoring of private communications, detention without trial – do raise concerns about whether the ceding of rights is worth it.

I’d say that, broadly-speaking, at present the UK has got the balance right but has crept too close to being a police state, particularly under Tony Blair. Since 2000, the UK Parliament has passed at least 11 laws relating to counter-terrorism and national security. So for Wales:

  • The security services shouldn’t be “secret” – There’ll be no official denials of their existence and they would be a public-facing organisation, like America’s FBI or the UK’s NCA. They’ll be held accountable for their actions even if meetings are held in private or documents classified.
  • No James Bonds or Smileys – No use of force, no interrogations in dark rooms, no jaunts abroad to casinos. Like most intelligence work it’s more likely to be done sat in offices in front of computers. The security service would be more about analysis of information provided by foreign intelligence agencies, the military or the police than actively gathering intelligence themselves.
  • Anti-terror laws should only be used for counter-terrorism/counter-extremism – ….not by nosey local councils or to piss off Iceland.
  • No extended detention without a warrant/court order from a senior judge – This is in line with a landmark House of Lords ruling in 2004 that people can’t be detained indefinitely without trial or charge. There’s nothing inherently wrong with holding suspects for questioning if there’s enough of a case to deem them a credible threat to national security….but there comes a point where a suspect will either have to be formally charged or released. The current limit for terrorism-related offences is 14 days.
  • No secret trials, no secret evidence – The Justice & Security Act 2013 gives British intelligence services an avenue to use sensitive material in civil trials, but it also means the government can block the publication of sensitive material in trials, denying the defence an opportunity to see it. This effectively puts those trials behind closed doors, while there’ve been concerns this denies people a right to a fair trial. It could be over-turned in an independent Wales.
  • Right of dislosure? – Similar to “SAR” requests under the Data Protection Act 1998. Welsh citizens could be given a right to ask if they’ve ever been subject to a security service investigation in Wales in cases that haven’t resulted in a formal/criminal investigation or are deemed protected information for reasons of national security.

Proscribed Organisations

There are a number of organisations which automatically bring you to the attention of the security services if you’re a member. In the UK the list includes various Northern Irish, Basque, Tamil and Kurdish paramilitary groups (some of which are now out of action), a multitude of Islamist groups, far-left paramilitaries and some quasi-political organisations like Hamas and Hezbollah.

Somewhat surprisingly, racist organisations which have either been linked to violence or called for violence – like Combat 18, Ku Klux Klan and Nation of Islam – aren’t included, neither are cults like the Church of Happyology.

The Terrorism Act 2000 stipulates people who are members, or believed to be members, of proscribed organisations could be tried then either imprisoned or fined depending on the seriousness of an offence (i.e. wearing an emblem would result in a fine, arranging meetings or providing finance would mean prison).

An independent Wales could continue the policy, with the Home Affairs Minister or equivalent using defined tests to proscribe organisations that are a threat to national security.

The key legal test – to protect freedom of speech and weed out groups that are a genuine threat to national security – would be “incitement” : acting, or encouraging others to act, in an unconstitutional or violent manner for political or religious reasons.

Hard evidence would need to be published by the government to justify an organisation’s inclusion on a proscribed list. This evidence could include stated political goals, speeches/official statements or actions.

It would then be a criminal offence to be a member of, provide funding to, host, associate with or display emblems of that organisation. Foreign members of such groups would be banned from entering the country (with a right to appeal), while finances would be frozen.

Special Forces

For those operations that require special planning, skills or training to carry out, there would need to be an elite group of military personnel tasked with it. It wouldn’t have to be a large number, probably a company-sized group of no more than 80-100 troops – similar to Ireland’s Army Ranger Wing. They won’t be particularly easy to recruit it’s got to be said and would probably be the last unit formed post-independence.

For the sake of giving them a name I’ll call them Special Service Commandos (I don’t know if there’s a snappy Welsh name to call them – “Saethwyr”, perhaps?) as they’d have to combine the skills of existing Royal Marines Commandos and some aspects of the SAS and CO19.

It’s likely any Welsh special forces unit would be recruited from the the three main branches and the police on the recommendation of commanding officers and weeded out through a tough selection process. Training would be much tougher than that for regular personnel and involve more disciplines.

Some of the skills they would be expected to acquire would include : abseiling, parachuting, combat diving, close protection, sniping, advanced survival training, makeshift explosives, martial arts, clandestine signals intelligence and the ability to work in extreme environments like deserts, mountains or hostile urban areas.

As for what they would do:

  • SWAT/Take over the current role of police armed response units (so they perhaps should have the power of arrest).
  • VIP and close quarters protection.
  • Special airborne and seaborne operations (i.e. boarding a hostile vessel).
  • Hostage rescue.
  • Counter-terrorism operations.
  • Intelligence gathering behind enemy lines (and perhaps domestically too).

The chances of them actually being used in anger are slim, so their role shouldn’t just be purely about brute force/precision operations. As suggested, they would take charge of VIP security during state and official visits (liaising with foreign equivalents for such visits), act as security consultants for private and public organisations and carry out specialist surveillance if the police or security service deem it necessary.

Part VIII looks in more detail at the role of civil authorities in defence, civil contingencies and emergency powers.