BBC Allowed to Publish Accusations of Abuse Against MI5 Agent

The news organization found that evidence suggested an agent for the domestic intelligence agency had a history of right-wing extremism and was abusive toward women, but it wasn’t allowed to fully identify him.

LONDON — The BBC investigation contained a bombshell allegation: Evidence suggested that an agent for MI5, Britain’s domestic security intelligence agency, had a history of right-wing extremism and that he had used his intelligence position to terrorize and abuse two of his former romantic partners.

But before the news organization could publish its report, an attorney general for the government moved to stop the broadcaster from airing the investigation, arguing that it would damage national security and endanger the agent.

After the unusual spectacle of a legal battle between a government agency and a state-funded news organization, the BBC was able to air its report on Thursday, with a crucial modification: It identified the agent only as X.

The public broadcaster had argued, unsuccessfully, that it had the right to identify the agent because it was in the public interest for women to know who he was, and that doing so would protect potential victims.

The case, which the BBC called “an unprecedented legal battle,” reflected the tensions between the public interest and national security, as well as questions of how influential institutions handle allegations of power abuse by their employees.

The legal battle began in February, after the government’s attorney general filed an injunction to stop the publication of the investigation. A ruling in April — some of which was based on evidence not made public — ultimately prevented the BBC from identifying the agent.

At the same time, the court stopped short of what MI5 had sought, saying the BBC could publish the story’s “core elements.” On Wednesday, the High Court issued a final ruling that resolved some technicalities about what the BBC could say, clearing the way for the report to be published.

Questions about the ruling were referred to Britain’s Home Office, which said that the ruling in April was “aimed at protecting national security and avoiding a real and immediate risk to life, safety and privacy.”

Nonetheless, the findings of the BBC report were “harrowing and horrific,” Dominic Raab, Britain’s deputy prime minister, told the news organization on Friday.

According to the BBC, the intelligence agent, a foreign citizen, had worked under several aliases for MI5 as a covert source, infiltrating extremist networks and feeding information back to them.

But one woman, who met the man on a dating site, told the broadcaster that he physically and psychologically abused her, and that he used his status to discourage her from reporting his behavior, citing “men in high places who always had his back.” The report did not indicate in which country this took place.

In a video shared by one of the accusers and broadcast by the BBC, a man standing over the person filming appears to be threatening her with a large knife. That episode, said the woman, identified by the pseudonym Beth in the BBC report, prompted the authorities to arrest him and charge him with assault. Prosecutors ultimately dropped the case, but the woman said the police had failed to properly pursue the case against him.

On Friday, legal representatives for her from the Center for Women’s Justice said she had filed a legal complaint to an independent tribunal responsible for complaints at the intelligence services, demanding that it look into MI5’s recruitment of the agent and “whether any steps were taken to address the clear risk of harm that he posed.”

Another woman, who met the man abroad while he was working for an unnamed foreign intelligence agency, also said that the agent had abused her, causing her to seek medical help and suffer a psychological breakdown.

Evidence that the BBC said it had viewed also suggested the agent was himself an extremist, including a private diary logged by police in which he wrote about killing Jews. He also commended several white supremacist mass murderers and said he intended to commit similar acts, according to one of the women.

“Given the BBC was able to establish that X had a history of violence and abuse, MI5 should, similarly, have been aware,” the investigation concluded.

Britain approved a contentious law last year that allowed undercover intelligence operatives and other covert informants to commit crimes in the course of their work without being prosecuted.

Critics of the law, which included progressive lawmakers and rights organizations, have argued that it has given the authorities outsize powers to commit crimes.

The approval of the law coincided with a rising movement advocating the safety of women and accountability for the institutions tasked to protect them, after several high-profile killings of women last year, including the murders of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive who was killed by a London police officer, and Sabina Nessa, a 28-year-old schoolteacher killed in a South London park.

The allegations against the MI5 agent showed how intelligence agencies, like many others, were failing to address how authority structures in institutions could protect abusers and were ineffectively vetting those being given vast powers, said Andrea Simon, director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, which is based in London.

Women’s rights groups, she added, had already warned the government that the law allowing intelligence agents to commit some crimes could potentially be abused, noting “a disquieting history of women’s rights being abused in the course of covert intelligence operations.”

“We know that when a perpetrator holds a position of social or institutional power, women are even less likely to be believed or see any consequences for the abuser. This must change,” said Ms. Simon. “No perpetrator should be able to use their power and status to abuse women and girls with impunity.”

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