Watching the watchers: a serious test for the Intelligence and Security Committee

MI6 FlagRecent months have seen a diverse cast of characters including newspaper proprietors, senior police officers and BBC executives being grilled by Parliamentary select committees. Today’s appearance of intelligence agency heads before the Intelligence and Security Committee is not likely to be quite so robust and confrontational. This will be the first time the Intelligence and Security Committee has taken evidence in public, and is part of a series of reforms which have been designed in part to demonstrate that the committee is powerful and effective in its role. As a result today’s session will be as much a test for the Intelligence and Security Committee, as for the representatives of the agencies appearing before it.

The heads of Britain’s intelligence and security agencies have emerged blinking into the daylight in recent years, and all three of those appearing before the ISC today have already made public speeches. Today’s session also sees the ISC emerge from the shadows. While it is a committee of parliamentarians, the ISC is also a body which has operated largely in secret until now. The committee which was first established in 1994, has until today met entirely in secret. Its membership, including the current one, has been hand-picked by the government, and its reports have been scrutinised in the Cabinet Office, where redactions are usually made, before publication. While committee members often claim that the ISC provides rigorous and robust accountability, unlike with other parliamentary committees, it has been impossible to observe scrutiny taking place. In some respects this will be our first opportunity to watch the watchers.

While the ISC has successfully established a close working relationship with the intelligence agencies since it was created in 1994, it has struggled to establish its credibility, not least  within Parliament. Our research, which involved interviews with over 100 parliamentarians found considerable and widespread scepticism about whether the ISC was effective in holding the intelligence agencies to account. While recent reforms of the ISC, which have seen it reconstituted as a Parliamentary committee with enhanced powers, have gone some way towards meeting those concerns. Many would argue that the reforms have not gone far enough and the committee still appears to be largely reacting to events as they become public, such as the recent Snowden revelations, rather than providing effective and early scrutiny from within the so-called ‘ring of secrecy’.

The ISC will be walking a fine line today. One of the criticisms of public evidence sessions by select committees, and one which has been used in the past to argue that the ISC is more effective than other committees, is that public sessions encourage grandstanding on the part of individual MPs. It is argued that such sessions, of which there have been prominent examples recently, generate considerable heat but very little light. The members of the ISC will be cautious to avoid such accusations on the basis of their performance today. Evidence of point-scoring might go down well in Parliament, and in certain sections of the media, but may damage the committee’s credibility with the agencies and undermine the likelihood of future evidence sessions being held in public. At the same time if the committee is seen to pull its punches, as it almost certainly will, it will come in for serious criticism. The ISC’s response will almost certainly be, that more probing questioning takes place behind closed doors.

Interestingly, the session today will be broadcast with a time delay to allow the broadcast feed to be cut if the issues raised stray too far beyond the bounds of official secrecy. However, it is not clear who will be making that decision. Will it be officials from the agencies, the Cabinet Office or committee clerks or a hastily convened committee of all three? Whatever the case the strategy is problematic and if used extensively may serve to further undermine the credibility of the committee. If this does happen it will also be interesting to see if the excised section is reviewed in retrospect and if it is not considered too sensitive, will a full transcript be released in due course? On the other hand a brief and judicious use of this process may serve to demonstrate to some observers that the ISC does seek to challenge the agencies on sensitive issues.

Particular attention today will focus on the Chair of the ISC, Sir Malcolm Rifkind. The ISC has been criticised in the past for being too close to the agencies. A large proportion of those parliamentarians who have served on the committee (22 out of 37) have formerly been Government Ministers. The current Chair served as both Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary. The committee has in the past also included, one former member of the intelligence services, sitting in the House of Lords, and eyebrows were raised in 2010 when Lord Butler, former Cabinet Secretary, was appointed to the committee.  It is argued, particularly by ISC members, that such individuals are best placed to scrutinise an issue in which few people have any experience, and widening the membership would undermine security. However, others in Parliament and from the intelligence community have suggested such individuals are not sufficiently detached to provide effective and independent scrutiny. In our research many MPs questioned the calibre of ISC members suggesting for example that they were ‘not the kind of people to ask difficult questions.’ Recent reforms to the structure and powers of the ISC are unlikely to change perceptions of the committee unless there are number of more imaginative and independent appointments. Although a good session today may help.

Whatever happens today this will be a fascinating step towards greater accountability, but it is only a short step, and it is unlikely to satisfy critics of  the ISC, particularly within Parliament. We should not expect too much.

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One Response to Watching the watchers: a serious test for the Intelligence and Security Committee

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