Our Security and Intelligence Agencies must be held to account. But without secrecy, a secret service cannot do its job

The Justice and Security Bill's proposals to introduce Closed Material Procedures in court is the best compromise between accountability and national security, says Sir David Omand

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The Independent Online

“You don’t expect that sort of thing happening on your street”.  The words of a local taxi driver after the conviction last week of three would-be suicide bombers from Birmingham.

Court reporting offered a tantalizing glimpse of some of the techniques and capabilities that brought the plotters to justice. Skyfall?  Unlikely. The real intelligence work that saved lives will have involved painstaking efforts to find first the relevant haystack among many, then find and extract the needle from the right haystack. Torture as portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty? Certainly not. Key information will have been provided voluntarily, by members of the community, by our friends overseas. They deserve our thanks, and our absolute assurance that confidences will be protected.

I understand the argument that the reason the Security and Intelligence Agencies are obsessed with secrecy is because they want to avoid accountability. But as former Intelligence & Security Coordinator and Agency Head I know it to be wrong. Intelligence organisations that cannot protect their techniques and sources will not survive for long. Compromise them and they will dry up and we will be less safe.

Yet rightly we still hanker after reassurance over what may have been done in our name. When allegations are made we have a right to know if these really do reflect something having gone wrong in the system which needs to be put right.  To be clear, this should not simply be an aspiration. It is a necessity, for us as citizens and for the intelligence officers who keep us safe. There must be public confidence in their work for them to operate effectively. Without this confidence sources evaporate.

The British way of resolving the dilemma of secrecy and accountability has been for senior judges to check that the agencies’ powers are being used within the law, and for senior parliamentarians to be given statutory authority to scrutinise their work. I welcome the proposals to beef up these powers, but frankly parliamentary accountability is not enough. Intelligence Agencies have to be accountable to the law. But here is the rub. When civil claims are brought against the Government in circumstances where secret material cannot safely form part of the evidence there is no such accountability. No justice for either party. No judgment on the claim.

We have an answer in the Justice and Security Bill. In my opinion its proposal to introduce Closed Material Procedures to enable national security material to be heard in civil court are a huge improvement.

The debate on the measure is at times heated. Quite rightly – the principle of open justice is an important one.  But so is accountability. The real prize in the Bill is to increase the ability of the Courts to get to the bottom of serious allegations made against the Security and Intelligence Agencies. If they have done wrong, they will be held to account. If they are blameless, then society can have confidence in their work. In either case we can have confidence that the truth will out. We can continue to be proud of what they are doing in our name.  And they can continue the painstaking work that keeps us safe.