Dame Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5, has warned that the fear of
terrorism is being exploited by the Government to erode civil liberties and risks
creating a police state.
By Tom Whitehead, Home Affairs Editor
17 Feb 2009
Dame Stella [who became the first woman director general of MI5 in 1992] accused
ministers of interfering with people’s privacy and playing straight into the
hands of terrorists.
“Since I have retired I feel more at liberty to be against certain decisions
of the Government, especially the attempt to pass laws which interfere with
people’s privacy,” Dame Stella said in an interview with a Spanish
“It would be better that the Government recognised that there are risks,
rather than frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict
civil liberties, precisely one of the objects of terrorism: that we live in
fear and under a police state,” she said.
Dame Stella, 73, added: “The US has gone too far with Guantánamo
and the tortures. MI5 does not do that. Furthermore it has achieved the opposite
effect: there are more and more suicide terrorists finding a greater justification.”
She said the British secret services were “no angels” but insisted
they did not kill people.
Dame Stella became the first woman director general of MI5 in 1992 and was
head of the security agency until 1996. Since stepping down she has been a fierce
critic of some of the Government’s counter-terrorism and security measures,
especially those affecting civil liberties.
In 2005, she said the Government’s plans for ID cards were “absolutely
useless” and would not make the public any safer. Last year she criticised
attempts to extend the period of detention without charge for terrorism suspects
to 42 days as excessive, shortly before the plan was rejected by Parliament.
Her latest remarks were made as the Home Office prepares to publish plans for
a significant expansion of state surveillance, with powers for the police and
security services to monitor every email, as well as telephone and internet
Despite considerable opposition to the plan, the document will say that the
fast changing pace of communication technology means the security services will
not be able to properly protect the public without the new powers.
Local councils have been criticised for using anti-terrorism laws to snoop
on residents suspected of littering and dog fouling offences.
David Davis, the Tory MP and former shadow home secretary, said: “Like
so many of those who have had involvement in the battle against terrorism, Stella
Rimington cares deeply about our historic rights and rightly raises the alarm
about a Government whose first interest appears to be to use the threat of terrorism
to frighten people and undermine those rights rather than defend them.”
In a further blow to ministers, an international study by lawyers and judges
accused countries such as Britain and America of “actively undermining”
the law through the measures they have introduced to counter terrorism.
The report, by the International Commission of Jurists, said: “The failure
of states to comply with their legal duties is creating a dangerous situation
wherein terrorism, and the fear of terrorism, are undermining basic principles
of international human rights law.”
The report claimed many measures introduced were illegal and counter-productive
and that legal systems put in place after the Second World War were well equipped
to handle current threats. Arthur Chaskelson, the chairman of the report panel,
said: “In the course of this inquiry, we have been shocked by the damage
done over the past seven years by excessive or abusive counter-terrorism measures
in a wide range of countries around the world.
“Many governments, ignoring the lessons of history, have allowed themselves
to be rushed into hasty responses to terrorism that have undermined cherished
values and violated human rights.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “The Government has been clear that where
surveillance or data collection will impact on privacy they should only be used
where it is necessary and proportionate. The key is to strike the right balance
between privacy, protection and sharing of personal data.
“This provides law enforcement agencies with the tools to protect the
public as well as ensuring government has the ability to provide effective public
services while ensuring there are effective safeguards and a solid legal framework
that protects civil liberties.”
In her interview, in La Vanguardia newspaper, Dame Stella also described the
shock of her two daughters when they discovered she was a spy and told how she
used most “gadgets” when she was in office except for “a gun”.