Create independent oversight committee for spy agencies, says former MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove

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An independent committee should be created to oversee the work of Britain’s spy agencies in the wake of damaging revelations from former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, according to the former head of MI6.

Sir Richard Dearlove told the Reuters news agency that while he did not believe that the UK’s spies had acted illegally, the heated public debate around Snowden’s actions meant that there was now a greater need for transparency and assurances that they were not misusing their powers.

“Snowden has damaged the West’s capability with his revelations,” Sir Richard said. “But I also think what he has done is increase the knowledge and understanding of what the Government’s capabilities are in these areas.

“There is probably a need to create some sort of committee which is independently appointed - isn’t from the judiciary, isn’t made up of politicians - that acts as a guarantor in terms of assuring the public that these powers are not being abused.”

He added that an independent body “representative of a multiplicity of views from across society” would improve public confidence in the work of Britain’s spies.

Snowden, a former CIA worker, began to leak sensitive documents in June last year. Since then, the continuing revelations have shed light on the vast scale of surveillance carried out by Britain’s intelligence agencies and their close collaboration with the US National Security Agency.

Although in the US President Barack Obama has started the process of reforming the work of the country’s spies in the wake of public pressure, changes to the status quo have been resisted in Britain.

Appearing in front of a parliamentary committee last November, MI5 chief Andrew Parker said: “The work we do is addressing directly threats to this country, to our way of life and to the people who live here.”

At the same hearing of the Intelligence and Security Committee, MI6 chief Sir John Sawers warned politicians that “our adversaries were rubbing their hands with glee, al Qaeda is lapping it up” in the wake of the Snowden revelations.

The chairman of the committee, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, has claimed that he and his colleagues “have the powers to do the job” of overseeing the work of the intelligence agencies and that no further reforms are required.