New head of British security makes some edgy

February 25, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- She keeps the secrets of the realm.

It is said she will be able to destroy a political career with a word in the prime minister's ear, the only person in Britain she is accountable to.

Some people are nervous.

Stella Rimington arrives today to the summit of her career as she assumes the most sensitive intelligence post in the United Kingdom, director-general of the internal security agency, MI5.

Already she has shattered two major precedents: She is the first woman to head the agency and she has escaped the anonymity in which all her predecessors dwelled over the 83 years the agency has existed.

Her name has been made public. In fact, a fuzzy picture of her appeared once in a magazine and again in a newspaper. It is the only one ever published. Because of it, she had to move.

Which is not to say the government has much to say about Mrs. Rimington. The notice of her selection reminds the press "that no photographic or interview facilities are being provided in connection with this appointment."

Two requests to the government for a biography of her were answered positively. The biography never came.

Also, there's some unhappiness attached to the appointment. Some people suspect she was active in a possibly illegal scheme of political sabotage ordered by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984. Its purpose was to break the coal strike in that year and destroy the National Union of Mineworkers.

Tam Dalyell, a Labor Party member of Parliament from Scotland, asked the government to clarify her role in the miners' strike.

At the time, Mrs. Rimington headed MI5's F2 Branch, which was reportedly carrying out surveillance of presumed "subversives," as well as of trade unions, including the miners.

Mr. Dalyell wrote a book on the Thatcher years, entitled "Misrule." It alleges the government sabotaged the strike and attempted to destroy the miners' union.

Mrs. Rimington's name does not appear in Mr. Dalyell's book. He sayshe deleted two paragraphs on her at the request of the publisher, Hamish Hamilton. "They were afraid of a suit," from the government, he said.

Mr. Dalyell gives John Major's government no credit for naming a woman to head the secret agency. "They just wanted to get the brownie points because she's a woman," he said. And this woman, he is convinced, oversaw a massive wiretapping operation of mine workers' offices and homes, and those of their supporters, during the long strike.

"The security services had no business getting mixed up in trade union disputes, sabotaging unions," he said.

This is not the first allegation of illegal or at best questionable activities by MI5, a bastion of the British establishment. Peter Wright's controversial book, "Spy Catcher," alleged an effort on the part of high-level MI5 officers to undermine the Labor government of Harold Wilson in 1975.

According to a report in the New Statesman magazine in 1986, the Wright allegations were later confirmed by a member of the Thatcher government while testifying before an Australian court in a vain attempt to have the book banned there, as it was in Britain.

Mrs. Rimington comes into office at a time when MI5's mission is being re-examined. This is the agency in charge of internal security, much like the FBI, and unlike MI6 whose agents operate abroad. It's preoccupation for nearly 50 years were Soviet intelligence operations in Britain, and the surveillance of those it construed as Soviet sympathizers, mainly members of left-wing groups such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and various figures in the Labor Party.

Now that the KGB has closed shop, questions naturally present themselves: How to deploy MI5's staff of 2,400? How to spend its nearly $650 million annual budget?

Recently a proposal was floated that MI5 might assume responsibility for the fight against the Irish Republican Army in Britain. Mrs. Rimington is known to have specialized on Northern Ireland for a time. This triggered alarm within Scotland Yard's Special Branch, the agency set up in the 19th century to combat the IRA's nationalist predecessors, the Fenians.

The gesture into Special Branch territory also alarmed Mr. Dalyell and others suspicious of MI5 and its operatives. Their apprehensions stem from MI5's privileged position within the structure of the British government. While the activities of Scotland Yard come under the purview of the Parliament, MI5 and MI6 do not. All attempts to change that have been ineffective, Mr. Dalyell said. "It hasn't even been discussed since 1988."

"With the Cold War ended, are we becoming more secretive?" he asked.

"That would seem the case with the intelligence agencies taking over the work of the police."

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