Rifkind hints at Commons inquiry into Guardian affair
But there's concern it will be used by Establishment to throw a blanket over the whole affair
FORMER Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind gave a clear hint this morning that the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee, which he chairs, will investigate the alleged "heavy-handed" tactics by the intelligence services against The Guardian over the Snowden leaks case.
He told Radio 4's Today programme that the way the partner of a Guardian reporter at the centre of the case had been held at Heathrow under the terrorism laws "deserves proper investigation".
However, the committee, which reports to the Prime Minister, not to Parliament, hears evidence behind closed doors and there are fears it will be used to bury the issue. And, with MPs still on holiday, and the party conference season approaching, it's not clear how soon such an investigation could be launched.
That said, an inquiry looks inevitable now that the government has been dragged into the controversy following the disclosure in The Independent this morning that David Cameron asked Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, to put pressure on Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian Editor, to hand back the stolen files.
Sir Malcolm made it clear on the Today programme that the Guardian had no legal right to hold the "stolen" data.
Rusbridger refused to hand the data back to the intelligence authorities, but agreed to destroy the hard-drives of computers containing the data in the basement at the Guardian as officers of GCHQ, the Government eves-dropping headquarters, looked on. (As The Week reports today, Rusbridger knew that The Guardian had access to other copies of the classified information held overseas.)
Sir Malcolm said: "I think Mr Rusbridger is on relatively weak ground. He did not dispute he had no legal right to possess the files or documents that were being discussed. The question was whether he handed them back to the Government or whether they were destroyed. He chose the latter.
"Clearly, if he thought what he was doing was perfectly lawful, he could have told the Cabinet Secretary to 'go and get lost, and take me to court if you like', but he didn't do that. He knew perfectly well if you have in your possession documents which were originally stolen, you are on pretty dodgy ground."
Sir Malcolm added: "This was not about embarrassment to the government. The documents which Snowden stole from the (US) National Security Agency are documents which deal with how the intelligence agencies get access to terrorist information through interception of mail or phone messages. That is something potentially relevant to terrorism. It's not about embarrassment to the government."
Yesterday, Rusbridger refused to name Heywood but said a "senior Whitehall figure" had told him: "You've had your fun. Now we want the stuff back."
It is likely that Cameron and Sir Jeremy will be questioned. But the intelligence committee operates behind a veil of secrecy - because of the sensitive nature of the intelligence information it handles - and will not be subjected to questioning in public.
And ministers will now be able to dodge further questions, using the impending Intelligence Committee investigation as their excuse - raising suspicions that an inquiry by Sir Malcolm's committee could be used by the Establishment to throw a blanket over the whole affair.
As Rusbridger later tweeted: "Does listening to Rifkind's routine defence of intelligence services reassure you about his oversight of GCHQ, MI5, etc?"
Another who could be questioned by the committee is Theresa May, the Home Secretary. She was accused by her Labour shadow Yvette Cooper of ducking an interview on the /Today/ programme this morning as the extent of Cabinet involvement in the intelligence row became clearer.
May had insisted that she was not responsible for the controversial decision to hold David Miranda in the transit lounge at Heathrow for nine hours under an obscure section of the anti-terror laws.
Miranda is the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who has covered the leaks of US contractor turned whistleblower, Edward Snowden. She said she was informed - but insisted it was an operational police matter.
Cooper said: "I have two concerns about this case - whether it was legally justified to use terrorism powers in this case and whether the Home Secretary and the government have been evasive about their role in this case. It has had to be dragged out of them - Theresa May has refused to come onto this programme." ·