Agent's abused former partner in legal action against MI5

By Daniel De Simone & Chas Geiger
BBC News

  • Published
Media caption,
Warning: This video contains distressing images

A woman who was terrorised and abused by an MI5 agent is taking legal action against the security service.

Beth, not her real name, has lodged a formal complaint with the watchdog for the intelligence agencies, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT).

On Thursday, a BBC investigation revealed her then partner used his security status to coercively control her.

He also attacked her with a machete and threatened to kill her.

The Centre for Women's Justice (CWJ) said Beth was asking the IPT to investigate MI5's recruitment and handling of the agent, X, and whether any steps were taken to address the clear risk of harm he posed.

She will also argue that MI5's conduct may have breached her human rights by "enabling X to subject her to serious violence and abuse with impunity".

The IPT is an independent, official panel that considers complaints about conduct by or on behalf of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ.

The IPT has the power to consider alleged breaches of human rights by intelligence agencies.

If it ultimately ruled that MI5 failed to take appropriate action to protect Beth from harm, that could impact all the UK's intelligence and security agencies that recruit and task undercover informants.

In practical terms that could force more detailed assessments of the risks that agents pose. It could potentially mean agencies decide some informants are too dangerous to recruit, no matter the value of the intelligence they may have.

In a recent ground-breaking case against the police, the IPT awarded £230,000 compensation to a woman who had been tricked into a sexual relationship with an undercover officer.

And so a ruling against MI5 in this case would almost certainly lead to damages for Beth.

If the IPT decides to examine the complaint, its panel will have to balance human rights considerations with wider questions about why the information provided by X was thought to be operationally vital.

Behind closed doors, the tribunal would be likely to examine MI5's paperwork and witness evidence about why this agent was important.

The questions Beth's case raise mean its outcome could become a major moment in the law governing undercover operations.

The CWJ said it was also exploring possible action against a police force which "failed to take action against the perpetrator despite repeated reports".

'Harrowing and horrific'

Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab has described the findings of the BBC investigation as "harrowing and horrific".

He said no one should be in any doubt how seriously ministers took violence against women or girls, but he could not comment further "because of national security".

His cabinet colleague Jacob Rees-Mogg praised the BBC for performing a "public service.. in bringing this story to light", but added that "the national security card does sometimes have to be played".

The High Court has ruled X can not be named for security reasons.

Labour's Yvette Cooper said Home Secretary Priti Patel needed to ensure there was an independent assessment of "this very troubling case and how it has been handled".

The shadow home secretary said this should include looking at safeguarding responsibilities, the way that concerns about domestic abuse are handled by MI5, and the criminal investigation that took place.

Domestic violence charity Refuge said the government's determination to protect X's identity was "terrifying".

X also made threats about killing and sexually abusing young girls, the BBC investigation found.

A video filmed by Beth shows him attacking her with a machete.

This is the story of a dangerous MI5 agent, which the government tried to keep secret.

Available now on BBC iPlayer

Protect victims

Police evidence seen by the BBC shows that he is a right-wing extremist with a violent past.

He moved abroad to work for a foreign intelligence agency while under police investigation.

At the High Court, the BBC argued that women had a right to know his identity and it would protect potential victims from harm.

The government said disclosing his identity would threaten national security and endanger his life.

A judge backed that - but ruled that details of the case could be revealed.

Refuge, a charity which helps victims of domestic violence, said it was horrified by the BBC's revelations.

Chief executive Ruth Davison said women were often told no one would believe them. "Imagine those words being spoken by someone who works for the security service."

She said the news that the agent had used his status to perpetrate domestic abuse was abhorrent, and the fact that his identity was being protected while he was expressing "murderous intents" was "terrifying for women and girls".

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
MI5's London headquarters

Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who also used to chair Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee, told Today the committee would be entitled to investigate whether MI5 had handled the case correctly according to its rules.

But he added he would have been "astonished" if the security service had not tried to protect the agent's identity.

If it hadn't, Mr Grieve said, it would have exposed the man to serious risk, and would not be able to recruit agents in future.

He said it was naive to think that vital information necessary to protect the public would always come from "individuals living within the law".

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