Intelligence heads scrutinised

News by Tony Morbin

In an unprecedented move, all three UK intelligence chiefs were jointly called to account today in a timely meeting of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) tasked with providing political oversight of the UK's intelligence agencies.

In an unprecedented move, all three UK intelligence chiefs were jointly called to account today in a timely meeting of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), planned prior to the Edward Snowdon revelations, and tasked with providing political oversight of the UK's intelligence agencies – and demonstrating such oversight publicly.

When Sir John Sawers, head of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), Andrew Parker, director-general of the domestic British Security Service (MI5) and Sir Iain Lobban, director of GCHQ appeared as witnesses before the ISC today, it was as much about the performance of the committee as about those being quizzed.

While the witnesses came across as highly professional, credible, concerned and thoroughly reasonable – their inquisitors could be accused of bowling under-arm – not asking the most difficult questions, and not following up on those they did ask.

In fact committee member Hazel Blears MP, a former Labour communities secretary, prefaced her question about whether there should be a more informed dialogue with the public about the balance between privacy and security by noting how 60 per cent of the British public support the current level of powers of the security services or think they should have more.

No mention was made of bugging German Prime Minister and other friendly state leaders Merkle – possibly via RAF Croughton -  as a follow up to Lobban's assertion that his agency only looked at those communications likely to have ‘targets' among them.

When Sawyers exclaimed, “You set the law and we will operate within it….. we are certain our work is within the law,” no one brought up this week's revelation that the UK embassy roof – as well as the US embassy roof – in Berlin appeared to be actively used for eavesdropping.  This despite Simon McDonald, the British Ambassador, being warned by Peter Schoof, head of the German foreign ministry's European department that using its embassy for electronic surveillance would be illegal under international law, and Tomas Oppermann, chair of the German parliament's intelligence committee subsequently asking law enforcement and security agencies to investigate whether a crime had been committed.

The committee and the witnesses all agreed with Parker's assertion that greater transparency and openness was the direction of travel, with people whose existence had previously been denied now appearing on live TV (albeit with a two minute delay to prevent any accidental disclosure of secrets), and Lobban did say that the line between public and secret was being redrawn, though the impression was that this event was as far as deemed necessary.  Certainly there was no need to utilise the two minute delay, and it is unlikely any informed viewer discovered much new at all, with any potentially interesting topics referred to private sessions.

Some MPs had earlier questioned whether the members of the ISC even knew about the NSA's Prism internet surveillance programme and GCHQ's Tempora internet-cable-tapping programme prior to the Snowdon's leaks, let alone truly oversaw it. While it was implied that they may not have known, the official answer was that this information was a secret.

As in any ‘competitive sport', you can only play the team you are confronted with, hence it was an easy win for the intelligence services, but more robust questioning might better have served the purpose of demonstrating oversight. Committee Chair Sir Malcom Rifkind MP, former conservative foreign secretary did suggest that it was hardly credible that given the way technology had moved on, the regulatory framework of the security services was still fit for purpose – but this was countered by Sawers, Lobban, and Parker who emphasised that they underwent rigorous oversight – from Parliament (including this committee), the judiciary via two Intelligence Commissioners who are former senior judges, as well as the executive in the form of ministers – and that the robust legal framework already included the need to safeguard privacy to the maximum extent possible – based on necessity and proportionality (to achieve national security), that it was a values-based approach and thus as valid now as when it was drawn up.

Snowdon had justified his actions leaking government secrets by describing himself as legitimate whistleblower revealing a failure of oversight at GCHQ and the NSA whose communications surveillance activities via Prism and Tempora were far more widespread than even most politicians realised, and certainly more than was found acceptable by friendly states outside the Five Eyes (US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand). Lobban asserted that the revelations in the press had had a direct consequence on operational capability, and did make their job harder with actual examples (not cited by name in the open session) of terrorist targets heard discussing how they should change their communications, and what they would not now use to avoid vulnerable communications.  Parker added that the revelations had, “caused enormous damage,” and Sawer noted that communications from GCHQ had saved lives this year, and the leads used are fragile, thus losing any advantage makes the job harder.

In contrast, earlier today the Guardian newspaper quoted Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the world wide web, as saying the leaks were justified, with the US and UK governments described as “dysfunctional and unaccountable,” and the breaking of encryption as a counter-productive exercise that weakened the internet.  “It's naïve to imagine that if you introduce a weakness into a system you will be the only one to use it,” said Berners-Lee.

The UK needs to demonstrate oversight over its security services including countering calls for the EU to create its own intelligence agency to rival the NSA – potentially without the UK.  Viviane Reding, the EU Justice Commissioner and vice president of the European Commission called for work on such a service to form part of proposals for a new EU treaty next year, and create a European Intelligence Service by 2020.  “Friends and partners do not spy on each other.  We expect to see action from the US to rebuild trust,” Reding commented on her Twitter feed.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Video and interviews