Britain’s intelligence agencies thwarted a deadly attack on the leadership of the anti-Gaddafi rebels in Libya, Foreign Secretary William Hague disclosed Wednesday.
The agencies were able to warn the National Transitional Council in Benghazi of the danger after discovering details of the planned attack by Muammar Gaddafi’s former regime, Hague said in a speech at the Foreign Office.
He said the agencies – which include the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, and the electronic “listening” agency GCHQ – had played a key role in the conflict which brought Gaddafi’s 42-year dictatorship to an end.
“Throughout the conflict in Libya, the agencies used their global capabilities to provide insight into the intentions of pro-Gaddafi forces and to understand the progress of the battles around Brega, Misrata and finally Tripoli,” he said.
“They worked to identify key political figures, develop contacts with the emerging opposition and provide political and military intelligence. Most importantly, they saved lives.
“For example the Gaddafi regime tried to attack the National Transitional Council in Benghazi, and to kill some of the Western representatives in Libya.
The agencies obtained firm intelligence, were able to warn the NTC of the threat, and the attacks were prevented.” Hague was delivering a rare public speech on the work of the intelligence agencies, which he described “vital assets” with a “fundamental and indispensable role” in keeping the nation safe.
The disclosure of the agencies’ involvement in Libya comes amid criticism that MI6 had been too close to the former Gaddafi regime and was involved in the extraordinary rendition of anti-Gaddafi activists.
Speaking at the Foreign Office, Hague acknowledged Britain’s standing in the world had been damaged by allegations that MI5 and MI6 officers had been complicit in the extradition and torture of terrorist suspects.
But while he said the Government was determined to tackle the issue, he strongly defended controversial proposals for secret court hearings in civil cases when evidence involving sensitive intelligence material was being discussed.
He said that it was essential the agencies were able to protect their sources and their methods if they were to carry out their work effectively.
“A blend of people, technology and partnerships give us an intelligence edge. If our techniques come to light, adversaries benefit and are able to switch techniques and communications resulting in a loss of knowledge about their plans,” he said.
“Many agents and sources risk their lives – some lose their lives – to give us the vital information to keep us safe. We have a duty to protect them.” The Government drew up plans for closed hearings following a series of multi-million pound compensation awards made to former Guantanamo Bay detainees after the agencies decided they could not defend the cases without compromising secret information.
Critics have argued the proposed changes run counter to the principles of open justice and could prevent future alleged abuses from coming to light.
However Hague said the civil justice system was simply not equipped to deal with national security cases involving information too sensitive to be disclosed in court. “This leaves the public with unanswered questions and the security and intelligence agencies unable to state their case and defend themselves,” he said.
“The taxpayer faces the prospect of footing an increasing bill for costly financial settlements because of the lack of an appropriate framework in which civil damages claims involving sensitive material can be heard. And key overseas relations have been strained by pressure to disclose sensitive information belonging to other governments.”
Hague stressed the procedure would only be used in “exceptional instances” and that it could well cover only a small part of the case, with the rest being heard in open court.