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Russia et al

After yesterday's publication of a Westminster report into foreign state meddling in UK democratic decisions, my mind turns to the issue of leadership. Perhaps the fundamental failing identified, and I am assuming that the Parliamentary Committee had access to information that underpinned their conclusions but which is not necessarily shared with us, lay with the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).

The first thing on MI6's web pages is the statement that "We work overseas to help make the UK a safer and more prosperous place". There is much worth a read (https://sis.gov.uk/) but what stands out is their statement that "Everything we do is tasked and authorised by senior government ministers".

Buried at little deeper on MI5's web site (https://www.mi5.gov.uk/) it says, "we formulate our own set of plans and priorities, which the Home Secretary approves."

But there is also GCHQ who on its web site (https://www.gchq.gov.uk/) says, "Our priorities are set by the UK's National Security Strategy and the decisions of the National Security Council, chaired by the Prime Minister, as well as the Joint Intelligence Committee."

In each of the three UK Government bodies charged with what we would understand to be intelligence work, there is a clear role for politicians; "senior government ministers" (MI6), "Home Secretary" (MI5), "chaired by the Prime Minister" (GCHQ).

The relationship between civil servants and ministers is a two-way one. The former have to identify matters to Ministers which may, note "may" not "do", matter in the discharge of their political role. And Ministers will proactively ensure that the actions of civil servants are informed by their political priorities.

The main threat discussed in yesterday's publication was from Russia.

They too have security services. In their case, unambiguously part of the military, not civil servants. The FSB web site (http://fsb.ru/ which interestingly my Chrome web browser says is "not secure") does not place its statement of mission and governance anywhere that my fairly brief visit there could find. The boss at the FSB is an army general.

The USA's CIA only seems to describe the involvement of politicians in a fairly limited way with their web site (https://www.cia.gov/index.html) saying, "conducting effective covert action as directed by the President".

In passing, I have been a regular visitor to the CIA web site over the years. Its "World Factbook" (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/resources/the-world-factbook/) is a first call location for information about other countries. Here's one of the things they say about the UK, "producer of limited amounts of synthetic drugs and synthetic precursor chemicals; major consumer of Southwest Asian heroin, Latin American cocaine, and synthetic drugs; money-laundering center". The last three words of which bring us firmly back to Russia's involvement in the UK.

As the preparation of today's diary scribbles has involved my visiting five significant state security service web sites, I expect I shall pop up on a few of their lists later today. But I imagine that I shall be in all their files already, as I have met people from all five previously.

The first was the slightly mysterious person "from the Home Office" who used to visit father about once a year. I think I let him in the front door once. Some of the patients who attended the house worked at Hawklaw listening station on the hill behind Cupar, where I was brought up. There were literally hundreds of radio masts there. We didn't know then but do now, that it was a GCHQ outpost. And father could have been an important source of intelligence about their employees. But always told us he wasn't.

The late Peter Ustinov, comedian, actor, writer and raconteur of distinction, wrote in his biography "Dear Me", about the fantasies of his father's employment as a spy. After Peter's death, the official history of MI6 confirmed that the stories were true. Who knows what MI5's files might say of my father.

Later, when a student, I drove a van for Fisher's laundry and delivered fresh toilet towels to their station. So I guess I shall be in there too.

A cheap holiday to the USSR in 1972 should have earned me further entries and would surely have been worth a few words in the KGB's records. The KGB became the FSS and are now the FSB.

It was always rumoured that the Intourist guides were employed by the KGB. Indeed after a few glasses of Georgian "Champagne" in the ballroom of the Sovetskaya Hotel in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), she admitted to being a Colonel in their service.

I guess she thought it would be OK to acknowledge that, as I had earlier on in our visit, met a KGB General in the lobby of their headquarters at the Lubyanka in Dzerzhinsky Square, Moscow. We were staying only four doors away at the pre-revolutionary Metropole Hotel, thus thankfully avoiding the dreadful Rossiya Hotel on Red Square where most foreign tourists were billeted.

It's fair to say that I was not the star attraction on the agenda of that meeting. I, and another member of our tour group, were simply there in the company of an Edinburgh art dealer. He had been born in Czarist Russia. He and his family had left shortly before the October revolution in 1917 (which you will recall occurred in November). It had become increasingly dangerous to be Jewish in Russia. They fled to safer climes.

But he had only recently discovered that he had an older brother who had been left behind. It was him we were in the Lubyanka to meet. Alas, I simply don't remember the names. But do remember the impressive chest of medals carried by the General. And I still wonder what a Jewish member of the KGB had had to do to survive Stalin's purges.

Stalin was one of Georgia's most famous sons, along with his notorious enforcer Lavrentiy Beria, and so in a strange symmetry, my next visit to what had been the USSR was to that country in 2006. I was there on two occasions that year to run workshops for local political parties on the mechanics of democracy. That was during the first presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili who came to power after the Rose Revolution of 2004.

The Russians were not far away, having invaded to take control of South Ossetia. Their troops were a mere 80 km from Tiblisi. And indeed the captain of the Airbus we were on warned us on final approach, it would be a rough landing because the shelling of the runway had only been temporarily repaired after Russian munitions had fallen on it. He was correct.

Without getting diverted too far from yesterday's report, I guess my 2007 visit to the Kaliningrad oblast of Russia, it's surrounded by Belarus, Lithuania and Poland, to help unveil a statue to Michael Barclay de Tolly, formerly of Banff in my constituency, will be worth another paragraph or two in my file(s).

I wonder if my files at the various security organs I have referred to in today's writings are greater in size than those devoted to the Russian threats to our democracy. On another occasion, I might write about other of my activities I would expect to live there.

There's no evidence to suggest the "Russian Interference" files are the larger.

An absolute failure of leadership.

By UK Ministers and all their advisers.

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