Our spy chiefs won't be losing any sleep over their summons by MPs: Despite the hype, public quizzing is no substitute for proper democratic scrutiny of our intelligence services
(Observer (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) A murder of crows. A congregation of alligators. A bloat of hippopotamuses. What is the collective noun for intelligence chiefs? A cache? An encryption? A shadow?
We need one because this week the three men who run Britain's intelligence agencies will appear together to answer questions from MPs and they will do so in public. The head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, the director of GCHQ, Sir Iain Lobban and the director general of MI5, Andrew Parker (the knighthood will come) have a date before the Commons intelligence and security committee and we are all sort of invited.
I guess this is progress since the days when it was illegal to name a spy chief, let alone put three of them in front of a camera. I expect the word "unprecedented" will be bandied about breathlessly. We may also hear excited talk of "historic". To inject theatrical thrill into the occasion, we are told that the session will broadcast with a short time delay in case anything is said that might endanger national security or the safety of those working for the agencies, though you would have thought everyone involved would be too professional to blurt out a state secret.
The group of MPs chaired by Sir Malcolm Rifkind is hyping the moment. Under pressure to justify its own existence as an effective invigilator, the committee is talking this up as "a very significant event in terms of the openness and transparency of the agencies".
Parliament certainly has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to democratic scrutiny of those who spend our taxes to spy in our name. Since June, a series of scoops in the Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post and Der Spiegel, based on the revelations about data-mining from the former sub-contractor Edward Snowden, has been disclosing how America's National Security Agency and our own eavesdroppers at GCHQ have been engaged in bulk surveillance of millions of citizens here and around the world. The targets have ranged from the very mighty - Angela Merkel, the German chancellor - to the very ordinary, which is to say the rest of us. The latest to be horrified by these activities - and the invasion of privacy must really be serious if these guys are getting agitated about it - is Google after revelations that the NSA has been slipping through digital back alleyways into its data centres. This has been most deeply embarrassing for the United States, which is taking a huge reputational hit in allied countries amid a storm of outrage in Congress. Say what you like about the governing classes of America: they have responded with a seriousness and a grasp of the implications for freedom that is in stark contrast to the response from Britain's leaders.
Over here, David Cameron rejects calls for a debate by scoffing that it is all "airy-fairy". Over there, Barack Obama acknowledges that there is cause for grave concern. Over here, William Hague says: "The innocent have nothing to fear", that most chilling of reassurances. Over there, John Kerry has conceded that the NSA was allowed to run on "autopilot" and American surveillance "has reached too far inappropriately". Over here, parliament has barely opened a sleepy eyelid. Over there, the chair of the Senate intelligence committee has called for a total review: "Congress needs to know exactly what our intelligence community is doing."
Bipartisan legislation has already been introduced to Congress to try to address the fundamental issue, which is that the technological capability now available for intelligence gathering has far overtaken the capacity of slow-footed politicians and creaky laws to ensure that its use is proportionate and safeguarded against abuse. The US Freedom Act proposes to prevent the indiscriminate collection of bulk data on American citizens, force both government and companies to be more honest about what they are doing and strengthen judicial supervision. Over here, there is not a hint of a whisper of a British Freedom Act.
If Sir Malcom's committee is truly interested in beginning a new era of "openness and transparency", there are plenty of topical questions that could be posed by the MPs. They should be able to think of the best areas of inquiry themselves, since they are supposed to be much better informed about this than the rest of us, but here are a few that occur to me. The former cabinet minister Chris Huhne has told us that neither the cabinet nor the National Security Council of which he was a member was told about GCHQ's mass surveillance programme called Project Tempora, which taps fibre-optic cables carrying internet traffic. That gives them almost unconstrained access to trillions of phone records, emails, internet searches. The committee might usefully ask the head of GCHQ who it was in government who signed off on that programme and whether the minister or ministers involved understood exactly what they were sanctioning.
When they turn to the head of MI5, the committee might ask him to substantiate his very grave claim that the Snowden revelations have been a "gift" to terrorists. Most reasonable people accept that the state must have its secrets and spying is necessary in the business of protecting democracy from terrorism and foreign powers that wish us harm. But the state never does its case any good when it attempts to shoot the messenger to cover discomfiture. The Conservative MP Dominic Raab, who worked with the intelligence agencies in a previous incarnation as a Foreign Office lawyer, put it well in a parliamentary debate last week when he challenged "the shrill and unsubstantiated assertion that we have somehow lost track of terrorist plotters as a result of the revelations". Mr Raab suggests that cries of national security are being used "to muzzle disclosures that are just plain embarrassing".
The committee might also inquire whether the intelligence services are using their resources wisely. We now know that they can hoover up vast quantities of personal data. Is this actually serving a productive purpose even by their own lights? A danger with all bureaucracies, especially clandestine ones, is that they will expand their scope to do things simply because they can, without pausing to ask whether the activity is actually sensible. As the former US diplomat Peter Galbraith puts it: "In the field of intelligence, more is not necessarily better."
In the case of the United States, the uncontrolled expansion of NSA surveillance has led to the hiring of hundreds of thousands of people - including subcontractors such as Edward Snowden - with the now proved risk of its secrets being leaked. MPs might explore whether bulk surveillance is a costly, largely counterproductive and potentially highly perilous distraction from the detection and apprehension of extremists dedicated to murder and mayhem.
Do I expect these questions to be rigorously pursued when the cache of intelligence chiefs appears before the committee? I can't say I am holding my breath. The event is billed to cover "the terrorist threat, regional instability and weapons proliferation, cybersecurity and espionage". That's a lot to get through in a session scheduled to last 90 minutes. You could devote a day to each of those topics and not deal with them adequately. This will be a platform for the intelligence agencies to shiver our bones about the threats posed to us at home and abroad and to impress us with how well they are doing in countering them.
I don't doubt that there are real and present dangers. Nor do I underestimate the pressure on those responsible for keeping us safe from murderous conspiracies. But talking about threats in general terms is also a very convenient way of avoiding interrogation of the scope, proportionality and legality of the methods used. We have been warned in advance that the committee will not be asking about "details of intelligence capabilities or techniques, ongoing operations or sub judice matters". So don't expect any probing into the really important stuff.
This is the perennial conundrum with invigilating intelligence agencies in a democracy. How do you make them accountable when their activities cannot, by definition, be wholly transparent? The answer is supposed to be the "closed sessions" in which the intelligence and security committee is tasked with investigating on behalf of parliament and the rest of us those areas that are too sensitive to be discussed in public. Perhaps the MPs will seize that opportunity to thoroughly interrogate the intelligence chiefs and demand the production of all relevant documents - it now has new powers to do that. The trouble is we will be asked to take that on trust.
You may enjoy the spectacle of the trio of intelligence chiefs making their first joint outing in the public gaze, but be aware that spectacle is all that it is likely to amount to. This has all the signs of an essentially cosmetic exercise designed to give the appearance that they are accountable to scrutiny without subjecting them to the real thing.
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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