By Joshua.Chambers

09 Jul 2012

Parliamentary efforts to hold government more closely to account include reforming how British intelligence agencies are overseen. Joshua Chambers reports on a committee walking the line between light and shade

The world of cloaks and daggers – which swapped most of its daggers for computers some time ago – is now progressively losing its cloaks. The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) has secured reforms that will enable it to hold Britain’s intelligence agencies more accountable to Parliament. It will be able to scrutinise operations and see more classified intelligence, and is even considering holding public hearings with intelligence officials. These changes require sensitive handling, lest they spook the spies – but they fit well both with the intelligence service’s gradual move out of the shadows, and a rise in the power of Parliamentary committees since 2010.

Founded in 1994, only two years after Britain formally admitted the existence of its intelligence agencies, the ISC is made up of senior MPs and peers – all with prior experience of handling classified intelligence – appointed by the PM to fulfil an advisory and scrutiny role. It reports directly to him, and its publications are often heavily censored by the government before release. Nonetheless, the committee has gradually moved away from its original – quite limited – function of assessing policy, finances and administration, winning some independence and the trust of the intelligence agencies in the process. It also moved out of the Cabinet Office two years ago, in response to concerns over its independence.

The committee’s chair, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, has now won legislation that both brings the rules up to date with current practice, and grants the ISC new powers. Change was required because “the 1994 act that governs the committee no longer accurately describes what happens on the ground,” he tells CSW.

Operational scrutiny
The first reform secured by the committee is the ability to scrutinise intelligence operations, rather than just policies, administration and finances. This is the “single most important function” of the committee, Rifkind explains, but it was “left out in the 1990s because it was felt too sensitive at the time. In practice, the committee – with the agreement of agencies and the government – has become very much involved in supervising operations, so that has to be brought up to date.” The ISC has written reports on MI5 operations in the run up to the 7/7 bombings, the use of intelligence in Iraq, the treatment of detainees, and other operations that they have not been able to publicise, he adds.

Sir Richard Mottram was the permanent secretary of intelligence, security and resilience in the Cabinet Office from 2005-2007. He says that, among intelligence staff, there will be “hesitations about what it means to have oversight of operations.” He warns that in the US, “the heads of agencies have to spend more time accounting to Congress than they do on their jobs.” CSW understands that intelligence professionals here are now concerned that their agencies will have to dedicate more of their own resources to the committee – and so less on conducting intelligence operations.

The ISC is, on paper, supposed to scrutinise only SIS (MI6), the Security Service (MI5) and GCHQ. But in practice, it already scrutinises the work of Defence Intelligence on behalf of the Commons’ Defence Committee – so the new legislation expands its remit to cover other intelligence-gathering operations, formalising that work. Intelligence professionals are warmer about this aspect of the changes: many believe that Defence Intelligence, which analyses information rather than collecting it, faced tougher spending cuts than other agencies because it lacked a political champion to stress the importance of intelligence analysis.

More access
The bill before Parliament gives the ISC the right to require information from intelligence agencies, rather than simply to request it. The information given to the ISC is currently edited first by the intelligence services, but this too will change. Intelligence agencies will be able to request that their secretary of state vetoes the provision of information; but to do so, ministers will first have to be satisfied that providing the information to the ISC would damage the security of the UK – even if it isn’t subsequently published by the committee. “It would only be in very rare circumstances that appeals to the secretary of state would succeed,” Rifkind predicts.

However, the committee won’t gain access to the minutes of the National Security Council or the Joint Intelligence Committee. Further, members of the committee aren’t put through Developed Vetting procedures, which would allow uncontrolled access to top secret government documents.

Mottram says that the secret of the ISC’s success is that, while it has access to classified documents, “it’s not adversarial”, and there are strict rules on how the intelligence material is used and published. He warns that “if they were to get into an argument about whether information is to be released into the public domain, the whole process would grind to a halt” – although he adds that this isn’t a prediction.

Increased access will certainly require increased caution, however. The intelligence community will not want data released which details operational procedures, or hints at their technological capacity. The relationship at present is built on trust, but CSW believes that if there are any fears that the committee is ‘leaky’ then the flow of intelligence will come to a rapid halt.

Public hearings
The committee is “thinking very seriously” about holding public evidence sessions with the heads of the intelligence services, Rifkind says. “In principle, we think it would be a good idea. There’s no reason or principle why the head of MI5 or MI6 or GCHQ couldn’t appear in public.” They’ve already inched into the limelight, he explains: for example, MI6 chief John Sawyers made a public speech a few months ago.

However, Mottram is not at all keen on the idea of public hearings (see news, p2). “Obviously, you can’t have public hearings with the intelligence agency heads on the basis of what they do. You’re not going to get very far,” he says, warning that it could lead to deterioration in the relationship between the committee and the intelligence agencies.

Committee members
“Up until now, we have been a committee of Parliamentarians, reporting to and appointed by the prime minister,” Rifkind says. “It’s very important that the committee’s independence should be manifest, and sometimes people wonder how independent we are if we are appointed by the prime minister and answer to him.” To end those doubts, he explains, “in future, Parliament will have the last word: if Parliament doesn’t like [the people the PM] has appointed, he will have to go away and come up with new names.”

This change is not particularly contentious, and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper wants the reform to go further: the chair should be a senior opposition MP, she argues, rather than a member of the governing parties. Unlike other Parliamentary committees, however, the ISC will not have any say over who’s appointed to head the public bodies it scrutinises.

Known unknowns
Some details of the reforms have yet to be decided. For example, Rifkind wants the committee to be given dedicated offices, perhaps on the Parliamentary estate. Further, the ISC may become funded by Parliament, as opposed to from the government that it scrutinises.

Funding is an important consideration, because the committee needs more resources to cope with the increased volume of evidence it will receive. Until 2004, the ISC had an experienced researcher – but he left after publicly stating that Saddam Hussein was not a threat to the UK. The belief in intelligence circles is that having a researcher would improve the ISC’s work.

Maintaining good relations
Spies are, rather obviously, known for their aversion to publicity. In its previous incarnation, the ISC slowly had to win over the intelligence agencies, and Rifkind believes it has done so by being a critical friend; highlighting where they have made mistakes, but also publicly defending them against unfair allegations – as with those made against MI5 after the 7/7 bombings.

Mottram agrees that the relationship has been good. “Having dealt with lots of select committees in my time, the relationship that we had with the ISC was a different one because we shared lots of highly sensitive information that enabled them to satisfy themselves about the way things were run,” he recalls.

However, he warns that “you couldn’t have it both ways.” The ISC must decide whether to maximise access to the intelligence, or its openness to the public, he says: “We couldn’t discuss secrets with them in the public arena. You pays your money and you takes your choice. If you want to have open public scrutiny of intelligence agencies on the basis of classified information, you won’t get very far. You have to behave with the information that you’re given, and then you open yourself up to this other criticism [about independence].”

Mottram’s comments explain why Rifkind hasn’t pushed reform further and sought to make the ISC into a select committee. It enjoys a privileged position for a Parliamentary committee, but even the current incremental changes make the intelligence services wary. The ISC will need to prove itself responsible. After all, while light is required to define shadows, when it’s shone directly at them they disappear without trace.

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