A British intelligence service watchdog has disclosed that Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers has rejected some MI5 applications to carry out "intrusive surveillance" on suspects.
The British Intelligence Services commissioner Sir Mark Waller has said that overall he was content with how MI5 surveillance applications are dealt with by Ms Villiers although he did express some concerns in his latest annual report.
Intensive surveillance is a key element in MI5's battle against dissident republicans. The most recent high profile example of such activity was in November last year when 12 men were arrested at a house in Newry by PSNI officers investigating the Continuity IRA.
At the time a PSNI detective told Newry Magistrates Court that MI5 was recording conversations over a period of months during which the men discussed weapons training and funding for terrorist activities.
The detective said “somewhere close to 70 hours” of recorded material was gathered in the house in Ardcarn Park over a three-month period involving “leading key figures of a proscribed organisation”.
While such scrutiny is a significant weapon in MI5’s armoury Sir Mark in his annual report for 2014 indicated that applications for heavy surveillance are not automatically granted by Ms Villiers.
“[She] shows a keen interest in the case for necessity and proportionality. She can and does refuse warrants,” he said.
Sir Mark expressed general satisfaction with how applications were made and granted, but was concerned about two cases in the North: "I was concerned' with the breadth of language used to define the subjects on two urgent warrants, one of which included an intrusive surveillance authorisation ... However after challenging the Northern Ireland Office I was reassured that they were keeping a very close eye on the use of the warrants and that the Secretary of State expected to be notified of any use."