Leading Article: Faint light on toilers in the shadows

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FROM THE quiet deliberations of the Committee of Imperial Defence in 1909 to a hot August afternoon two years later when the first Official Secrets Act glided through a sleepy House of Commons, the modern Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, came to birth in a culture of gentlemanly discretion and an Edwardian belief that only an elite were fit custodians of affairs of state.

The Intelligence Services Bill, designed to give the service a foundation in statute and to introduce a mechanism for overseeing its activities, is therefore both welcome and overdue. The Government Communications Headquarters, GCHQ, is also to be included. It seems that MI6 itself embraces its newly accountable role with a fervour that those trained to spot ideological renegades might find suspicious.

Nobody expects toilers in the shadows to appreciate a sudden glare of light. Yet MI6 officers know that their service can no longer command the automatic assent, the simple test of loyalties, that obtained in a world divided between East and West. Policies and objectives, from the Gulf to the Balkans, must be argued and justified case by case. This already makes some officers performing brave and valuable duties uneasy. They cannot be expected to relish a further intrusion into their modus operandi. That is why Sir Colin McColl, the head of MI6, was right to say that his service will not be undressed in public. Secrets, after all, are just that. Their possession rightly implies great responsibility.

The new arrangements make an effort to establish the vital link between expenditure and accountability to elected politicians so critical to a public consensus in support of the service. Parliament will henceforth gain the opportunity to vote on overall budget figures and the MI6 accounts will be audited like those of other departments. That is a good thing.

But the procedures envisaged in the Bill do not open the way to parliamentary scrutiny along the lines of that exercised in other democracies. It is hard to see how the proposed body could match the authority of the US Senate and House Intelligence Committees. Doubters are assured that such a comparison is inexact, that distinguished committee members appointed by the Prime Minister will prove vigilant, and that they will oversee finance, policy and administration. The doubts remain.

Nor do the proposals address the real issue about MI6, which is not the dedication of its men and women, but the wisdom of the policies they are directed to undertake. Arming Iraq, for example, was a cynical folly. Wise men might privately have counselled caution. But evidence to the Scott inquiry shows that precious little common sense was on offer, from Her Majesty's present ambassador to Saudi Arabia downwards. Only a Commons select committee, suitably indoctrinated and vetted for security, might have put a stop to it. The Bill, therefore, does only half a service to Parliament, taxpayers and secret pilgrims alike.