The Will-o’-the Wisp of Cabinet Oversight of the Intelligence Services

Interesting piece in The Guardian today by former Liberal Democrat Minister Chris Huhne about the lack of discussion within the Cabinet about the extent of surveillance undertaken by GCHQ. Huhne makes some interesting points but he does rather misunderstand the relationship between the intelligence services and the Executive. The intelligence and security agencies are directly answerable to the Prime Minister, and to the Home Secretary, in the case of MI5, and the Foreign Secretary in the case of MI6 and GCHQ. While these individuals have day to day oversight of the agencies they are under no obligation to discuss this with the Cabinet. Moreover, there is a long tradition of not discussing the activities of the intelligence and security agencies at meetings of the whole Cabinet. This was in part because Prime Ministers can’t always rely on the discretion of their Cabinet colleagues and in part to avoid more troublesome Cabinet members asking difficult questions, which is, of course, Huhne’s point. Perhaps the most prominent recent example of this was Tony Blair who in the run-up to the war in Iraq preferred to confine discussions of intelligence  on Iraqi WMD to small informal meetings of key Ministers. This was something for which he was heavily criticised by Lord Butler’s inquiry into intelligence on Iraqi WMD. However, Blair was by no means unique in this respect as is illustrated by the following  extract from a Cabinet Office minute for Prime Minister Clement Attlee from 1948:

I should mention that the Foreign Secretary attaches particular importance to keeping within… a narrow circle … any discussions on ‘political warfare’ which are likely to involve consideration of covert activities for which M.I.6 are, or would be responsible. He particularly wishes to avoid having to discuss these possibilities at any larger gathering of Ministers. As you know it is a long-standing practice that in peace-time the activities of the Secret Service are not disclosed to Ministers generally – and the Foreign Secretary would much prefer that any discussions on this subject should be confined to yourself, the Minister of Defence, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer [and] that further Ministerial discussions on the ‘Communist Threat to Europe’ should be handled, not through a formal Cabinet Committee, but through a series of meetings with a composition varying according to the nature of the subject under discussion. (Memo by Cabinet Secretary, Norman Brook, 10 March 1948, CAB 21/2745, The National Archives).

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One Response to The Will-o’-the Wisp of Cabinet Oversight of the Intelligence Services

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