February 17, 2009 / 9:38 AM / 10 years ago

Ex spy chief says government risks "police state"

LONDON (Reuters) - The former head of MI5 has warned the government it risks creating a “police state” by exploiting fears over terrorism to erode civil liberties.

Former MI5 Director-General Stella Rimington holds a copy of her autobiography "Open Secret" at a Central London bookstore in this September 18, 2001 file image. REUTERS/Dan Chung

Dame Stella Rimington said in an interview with the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia that interfering with people’s privacy played straight into the hands of terrorists.

“It would be better that the government recognise that there are risks, rather than frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict civil liberties,” she said.

“(That is) precisely one of the objects of terrorism: that we live in fear and under a police state,” she added.

Rimington, 73, became the first woman director general of MI5 in 1992 and was head of the security agency until 1996.

Since stepping down, she has been critical of the government’s counter-terrorism and security measures, especially those encroaching on civil liberties.

Last year, she called attempts to extend the period of detention without charge for terrorism suspects to 42 days excessive, shortly before the plan was rejected by parliament.

She has also attacked the government’s controversial plans to introduce ID cards, saying they would not make the public any safer.

A Home Office spokesman said in response to her latest warning: “The government has been clear that, where surveillance or data collection will impact on privacy, they should only be used where it is necessary and proportionate.”

Striking the right balance between privacy, protection and sharing of personal data was key, he added.

“This provides law enforcement agencies with the tools to protect the public as well as ensuring government has the ability to provide effective public services.”

In the Spanish interview, Rimington also criticised the approach of the United States to fighting terrorism.

“The U.S. has gone too far with Guantanamo and the tortures,” she said. “MI5 does not do that. Furthermore it has achieved the opposite effect: there are more and more suicide terrorists finding a greater justification.”

Rimington said the British secret services were “no angels” but insisted they did not kill people.

Reporting by Stefano Ambrogi; Editing by Steve Addison

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