Even the room somewhere in Westminster where the historic meeting was to take place was kept secret until the last minute. Once “C”, Sir John Sawers, and his two colleagues arrived, the Intelligence and Security Committee chairman Sir Malcolm Rifkind announced a time delay on the TV broadcast lest anything endangering national security should be said. Mysteriously, the man sitting immediately behind MI5’s Andrew Parker bore a passing resemblance to Nikita Khrushchev. We were, in short, all keyed up.
In the event, it would require the combined talents of Len Deighton and John Le Carré to have made the event seem truly exciting. True, the routinely humiliating select committee interrogations of tax-dodging captains of industry raised expectations of a sparkier confrontation. Perhaps because the committee is all inside “the circle of secrecy”, this interrogation was tamer.
There were highlights, such as the Eric Cantona-like metaphor used by the head of GCHQ, Sir Iain Lobban, to show that its comprehensive mass surveillance was not directed at mere members of the public. Instead, they were looking for needles in a haystack. “We draw out the needles and do not intrude on the surrounding hay,” he explained.
Sessions like these often leave unanswered questions. But this left unasked ones too. When Sir John insisted on the Edward Snowden revelations that “our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee, al-Qa’ida is lapping it up”, Sir Malcom asked for examples of how such groups had changed their methods as a result. He was told that this was for a private committee session. Fair enough – though we were left in the dark about what parts of the revelations al-Qa’ida had “lapped up”.
In the face of Sir John’s denial to Labour’s Hazel Blears that MI6 was complicit in torture – while admitting that “our people were not trained” for the new threat after 9/11 – no one on the committee was indelicate enough to raise the case of Binyam Mohamed, in which the High Court evidence told a different story. Perhaps this was because this very same committee had failed to uncover the truth about rendition.
Lord Butler probably asked the best question: whether it was “really credible” that the last legislation covering surveillance, passed in 2000 long before the development of current technology, was fit “for the modern world”. Sir John told him in another context that his report on the intelligence failures ahead of the Iraq war was now MI6’s “bible”. He was a practised diplomat before he was “C”. Which in the present climate is probably just as well.t