A historic opportunity to change how we spy

This is about more than bugging allied foreign leaders – it’s about public accountability

Share

Next week’s questioning, by the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, of the heads of MI6, MI5 and GCHQ is important, even historic. It’s the Committee’s first open session, and the first time the intelligence chiefs will appear in public together to discuss their work. Since the hearing follows the latest Edward Snowden revelations, there will be plenty to ask “C” – Sir John Sawers – and his colleagues about.

The public hearing will not cover “ongoing operations”. So will it fill in the gaps in David Cameron’s answers at the EU summit, at which France and Germany expressed “deep concerns” about US National Security Agency activities abroad? (And – in a coded reference to “trust” between “European countries” – concerns about Britain’s own role in international surveillance.) 

We know from those responses that Cameron’s own phone had not been bugged. There were also questions he didn’t answer. Did he reassure his EU partners that British intelligence – and GCHQ – “was not part of, nor knew about” the high-profile bugging cases which have come to light? Had his Government seen intelligence gleaned from the Merkel phone-taps? 

But this is about more than bugging allied foreign leaders. You need not doubt Cameron’s repeated assertions about the security services’ thwarting of murderous plots against British citizens to realise that the Snowden revelations pose serious issues of public accountability. To take one random example: the broad remit in the 1994 Intelligence Services Act says they also operate in the “the interests of the economic wellbeing of the UK”. How is that applied in the era of high-tech mass surveillance in relation to everyone from trade union officials to captains of industry, here and abroad? Maybe this is a minor point, maybe not. But how would we tell?

In tackling the accountability question, Cameron repeatedly cites the ISC. Founded, to his credit, by John Major in 1994, this was indeed an advance in oversight. But how far it amounts “to proper parliamentary scrutiny”, as Cameron claims, is highly doubtful.

The ISC’s defects to date are clear. In its 2003 post-Iraq-invasion report it ducked the crucial question of whether the intelligence case justified war. But an even more glaring setback was its 2007 enquiry into whether the British had co-operated in the rendition of US detainees. It accepted the then Labour government’s contention—which David Miliband was obliged a year later to retract – that territory had not been used for rendition flights. It also accepted the contention that the UK had not known about the torture of the Ethiopian born Binyam Mohamed – subsequently shown in a 2009 High Court case to have been known about by UK intelligence officers, and in an interrogation “facilitated” by them.

It may not have been the ISC’s fault that 42 relevant documents on rendition were withheld from it. But it was unfortunate that its then chairman, former Labour Foreign Office minister Kim Howells (the convention is that the ISC chair should be from the party in power) confidently insisted that the committee had “never been denied any evidence from the agencies.”

The impression, fair or not, that the ISC had been unduly influenced by the executive, is compounded by the way the committee is appointed, namely by the Prime Minister. Like Cameron, the current ISC chairman, former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, has made much of the recent “strengthening” of the ISC’s scrutiny. But only in name will the committee be appointed by Parliament, since its members will first to be nominated by the Prime Minister. He “consults” the Opposition leader but that serves mainly to reinforce a cosy pact between them on intelligence issues. However imperfect, the more powerful US Senate and House intelligence committees are, at the very least, answerable to Congress and not to the administration.

Which somewhat undermines William Hague’s statement earlier this year that Britain enjoys “the strongest systems of checks and balances for secret intelligence anywhere in the world”. And may also explain why documents leaked to The Guardian quote a GCHQ legal adviser as briefing, by contrast, that “We have a light oversight regime compared with the US”, adding that the ISC “have always been exceptionally good at understanding the need to keep our work secret”.

In 2010, the Labour MP Tony Wright’s cross-party committee on Commons reform unanimously recommended that the ISC chairman be elected by secret ballot of all MPs, as most select committee chairmen now are. The proviso is that each candidate would have the prior consent of the PM. This would meet the argument, however theoretical, that MPs might be choosing a chairman who was a security risk. But it would make the chairman truly accountable to the Commons which had elected him, or her.

As the Tory Treasury select committee chairman MP Andrew Tyrie, a fierce campaigner both for parliamentary reform and for successive governments to come clean about rendition, has put it: “The Wright proposal does not involve any risk to national security... Given the collapse of confidence in the ISC after its failure on rendition, a reform of this kind is the minimum required.”

The Wright reform would not magically impose accountability. But it would be a significant if modest step towards “proper parliamentary scrutiny”. Next week’s public ISC hearing will be watched with great interest. But it’s unlikely to provide a satisfactory answer, in respect of the British security services, to the age-old question: “Who will guard the guardians?”

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Ashdown Group: PHP Web Developer / Website Coordinator (PHP, JavaScript)

£25000 - £28000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: PHP Web...

Recruitment Genius: Estates Projects & Resources Manager

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in London, Manchester, Br...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: moderate, iconic royals are a shoe-in for a pedantic kicking

Guy Keleny
 

Letter from the Whitehall Editor: Cameron is running scared from the “empty chair”

Oliver Wright
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us