12 May 2012. Longer version of the article from the printed Sunday Times:
22 April 2012
Ex-MI6 Charles Farr Out of Shadows
Chief snooper pops out of the shadows
Sunday Times, 22/4/12, p23 main section
When the embattled Theresa May appears before a committee of MPs on Tuesday
to give evidence about her work as home secretary she will be accompanied
by one of Whitehall's most powerful, controversial and secretive mandarins.
Charles Farr, the Home Office's top "securocrat", is set to emerge from the
shadows for the first time as he is asked to defend the coalition's plans
to monitor the Internet use and digital communications of everyone in Britain...
He joined MI6 some time in the 19802, serving in South Africa and Jordan.
Farr is understood to have come to prominence, as one contemporary recalled,
"flying around Afghanistan in a helicopter with thousands of dollars in bundles,
doing deals with farmers to not grow opium. Bad policy as it turned out,
but he did it very well..."
Farr's critics say he still carries the legacy of his MI6 heyday -- a mindset
they claim is inappropriate for his job at the heart of Whitehall security
policy. "When you are an MI6 officer out in the field, trying to stop people
getting nuclear weapons in, say, Kazakhstan, you have to be very independently
minded and very confident in your own judgement. There's not a lot of ministerial
control or public accountability," says an admirer who knows him well. "Charles
feels very uncomfortable in the world of domestic politics and doesn't read
it very well."
A former Home Office official went further: "When you're suddenly flung into
a top position with management and policy responsibility in the Home Office,
you can't go on behaving like you are in the Tora Bora caves doing deals
with warlords. Your job is to advise ministers who decide policy. You can't
go around thinking you are a player in your own right. It's a constitutional
It's no secret in Whitehall that the grandiosely titled communications
capabilities development programme was Farr's "policy baby". In fact, it
was a rehash of an earlier attempt by Farr in 2009 to persuade the then Labour
home secretary to build a giant database where the government could hold
details of all emails and telephone calls. It obviously needed sensitive
handling, but its delivery was bungled by Farr's office and it was dumped
by Labour after an uproar. When a new government was elected he tried to
resurrect the plan -- with similar results.
A similar lack of deftness befell Farr's efforts to develop "Prevent", a
controversial plank of the government's counterterrorism policy that aimed
to identify and thwart thousands of young Muslim men who might be vulnerable
to violent extremism... "It was a blurring of the policy of surveillance
with a different policy of community engagement and building a civil society,"
said a former Home Office official. "But if, like Charles Farr, you are a
career spook you just don't get that. You see everything as an opportunity
for surveillance and you see everybody as potentially sinister..."
Another former official, who had a showdown with Farr over policy, recalls:
"He's almost messianic. He's like he's on a mission to protect the nation.
When you disagree with him he gets very emotional. He's one of these guys
who goes white and shakes when he loses his temper..."
"He has on occasions adopted a style that could be considered inappropriate,"
said a former official. "He's a very uncivil servant."