Tuesday 18 May 2021 8:14 pm

Former MI5 chief reveals secret documents in hollowed-out tree were eaten by squirrels

A former MI5 chief has recalled the distress of a Russian intelligence officer discovering top secret documents concealed by an agent in a hollowed-out tree had been eaten by squirrels.

Baroness Manningham-Buller, who served for more than three decades in the Security Service including five as director general, recounted the spying tale as she highlighted the modern, large-scale threat now faced by the UK from hostile states.

This ranged from industrial and economic espionage through to cyberattacks aimed at stealing secrets, spreading lies and undermining Britain’s democratic process, she said.

The independent crossbencher welcomed moves by the Government, announced in the Queen’s Speech, to introduce legislation aimed at tackling hostile activity by states, which she argued was “overdue”.

Successive governments had “not had the appetite” to tackle the problem, she said, instead relying on “creaky” laws dating from the two world wars.

Counter-State Threats Bill

Lady Manningham-Buller made her comments as peers continued to debate the Government’s planned legislative programme, which included a proposed Counter-State Threats Bill.

During her time in the Lords, she said had rarely spoken about hostile state activity “despite many years of experience, mainly in the Cold War, of trying to counter it”.

Lady Manningham-Buller said: “My excuse is that successive governments have not had the appetite to tackle the problem, rather preferring to rely on creaky legislation from the last century designed to deal with German espionage in the run-up to the First World War and Nazi espionage in the run-up to the Second World War.”

She added: “So I strongly welcome the Government’s intention to legislate and I look forward to seeing what the Bill says.”

The peer recalled: “As a young intelligence officer, I remember interviewing a Russian intelligence officer who was distressed to discover that the papers in his carefully chosen dead-letter box – a hollowed-out tree in which his agent was going to stow top secret documents – had been eaten by squirrels. That’s not what we are taking about any more.

“We are talking activity of scale. Industrial, economic and academic espionage. Cyberattacks to steal our secrets, distort data, spread lies, amplify disinformation and of particular concern to this House to interfere and undermine democratic process.

“I look forward to the scrutiny of this overdue legislation. I don’t anticipate it will have an easy passage as it is a complex subject.

“But we need a law that is balanced and proportionate, recognising the public interest while allowing us better to defend ourselves against attacks which are covert and the scale and cost of the damage from which are not well understood.”