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

Share
Related Topics

“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.

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity to...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Manager - Production

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Managers are required to join the UK's...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Manager

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will maximise the effective...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission : SThree: Hello! I know most ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A picture posted by Lubitz to Facebook in February 2013  

Andreas Lubitz: Knee-jerk reaction to 9/11 enabled mass murder

Simon Calder
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, presides at the reinterment of Richard III yesterday  

Richard III: We Leicester folk have one question: how much did it all cost?

Sean O’Grady
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss