The Intelligence and Security Committee: A watchdog with no teeth or credibility

The government says a Commons committee will get to the truth about UK complicity in torture. But it won't give it the powers it needs

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The prevention of terrorism is difficult and hazardous work. We need the protection of strong intelligence agencies. In a 21st-century democracy we need assurances that those who do that work on our behalf respect the values that we want our country to stand by. And the mark of such a democracy is that it has sufficient checks in place to ensure that those standards are not compromised. Much will remain secret so we need to have confidence in the watchdogs that perform those checks.

Our parliamentary watchdog, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), lacks sufficient moral authority to do that job. This is partly because it failed its first big test: to find out the extent of British involvement in kidnap and torture after 9/11 – the US-led programme of extraordinary rendition. Our country has facilitated serious wrongdoing, but 10 years later we still don't know how much.

In response to that failure, the coalition Government courageously set up a judge-led inquiry, but it stood it aside while police investigations have been taking place into possible UK involvement in renditions to Libya.

Now the Government has abandoned its commitment to restore a judge-led inquiry to complete the investigation. Instead we are being asked to rely on the ISC to find out the truth, and on the very issue on which it has so spectacularly failed. That is asking a lot.

Initially reluctant even to probe allegations, the ISC was prevailed upon to investigate in 2007. It concluded – misleadingly and farcically – that there was "no evidence that the UK agencies were complicit in any "extraordinary rendition operations". We now know, as a result of a High Court ruling in 2008, that the agencies facilitated the rendition of Binyam Mohamed.

When the absurdity of its conclusions was exposed, the ISC said that it had not received crucial documents. The Joint Committee on Human Rights concluded that the ISC had failed to provide "proper ministerial accountability". This may not necessarily be a reflection of the committee's members, nor on the performance of the security services as a whole. Most serve our country well in difficult circumstances. It may primarily have been a failure of the scrutiny tools available to Parliament. It is this failure which the Government claims has now been remedied with reforms to the ISC. But these are unlikely to be adequate to the task.

First, there is the composition of the ISC, crucial for its independence from government. Up to now, the appointment of the chairman was in the hands of the Prime Minister. The Government has said that it has now put in place a new system to give Parliament the final say. Don't believe it. For all practical purposes, the Prime Minister will continue to appoint the committee and the chairman, as before. This is because the Government has merely replaced direct appointment by the Prime Minister with the system of appointment that Parliament has just discarded for select committees. Chairmanships were always, in practice, agreed by the whips of the main parties in advance – or by the Prime Minister, if he chose to meddle. That is now the position of the ISC.

To rebuild confidence in the ISC's independence, the Government should adopt the balanced proposals of the 2009 Wright Committee on parliamentary reform. The ISC chairman should be elected by MPs, subject to a prime ministerial veto over initial nominations. This would both bolster accountability to Parliament and provide the appropriate safeguards.

The importance of restoring credibility to the appointment of chairmen should not be underestimated. The manner of these appointments, under the last government, did much damage to the ISC's standing. Three chairmen were appointed by the Prime Minister directly from senior government jobs, only to be reappointed straight back to the Cabinet or another senior job after a tour chairing the ISC. Nothing has been done to close this revolving door. Election is not a cure-all, but it would add some confidence that the holder of this post felt some genuine accountability to Parliament, rather than to the Prime Minister.

Second, we cannot be sure that the ISC will get to see the documents it needs, unlike its counterparts in the US. Under new rules, the ISC can request information from the agencies – if they know what to ask for – but the Secretary of State may withhold it on the grounds of its "sensitivity".

In the Binyam Mohamed case, the High Court and the Court of Appeal, after seeing the relevant papers, held that the Government had facilitated torture and that the ISC's public assurances to the contrary were false. The result was embarrassment for the agencies and erosion of the ISC's credibility. This should have prompted the Government to permit the ISC full access to classified information. It didn't.

The most plausible explanation for the Government's determination to restrict the ISC's access to papers must be that it doesn't think its members can be trusted not to leak information. After all, nothing can get into the public domain without the Prime Minister's authorisation: the Prime Minister retains a veto on material the ISC publishes.

Third, the fact that the ISC now "reports to Parliament", rather than just the Prime Minister, adds little. Parliament and the public receive only the Prime Minister's redacted version of the ISC's report.

Fourth, even the extension of the ISC's remit to cover operational matters is qualified by the phrase "in certain circumstances". With caveats like that, the ISC will have a hard time convincing the public that its remit has been meaningfully expanded.

The chairman of the ISC says the reforms will give it the real power it needs to carry out its duties effectively. I doubt it. It should have been a step in the right direction that the committee called in the heads of MI6, MI5 and GCHQ. But even this was compromised somewhat – when the committee was mysteriously satisfied by assurances from the head of MI6 that his organisation had not been involved in rendition. We have ample evidence, supported by High Court judgments, that it has. The revelation that all the questions had been pre-agreed did not assist the appearance of the ISC's independence.

Oversight of the intelligence community must not only be effective, it also must be seen to be effective. Once the appearance of independence has gone, so does the point of having the ISC. The ISC is now on its mettle. Its credibility will not have nine lives.

Andrew Tyrie is the Conservative MP for Chichester and chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition

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