Spooks vs journalists: terrible over-acting on both sides
It's not new technology or journalistic activism that is making spying more difficult - it's the death of trust
THE DEBATE over the intelligence services kicked off by MI5's director general, Andrew Parker, speaking at the Royal United Services Institute earlier this month, has many of the characteristics of a provincial Victorian melodrama. The over-acting is excruciating.
Andrew Parker himself made it crystal clear that the intelligence services should be their own master – indeed that they should be the sole arbiters of the boundaries of the secret world. He lambasted The Guardian for publishing intelligence material spilled into the public domain by the American whistleblower Edward Snowden. In lurid language, he suggested that leaking such material "was a gift to terrorists".
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, current chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, the organ charged with parliamentary oversight of the intelligence services, weighed in echoing Parker's sentiments.
Both Parker and Rifkind came across as angry and affronted, living in a long departed world where unconditional admiration of the intelligence services is still the norm.
It is not new technology or journalistic activism that is making the business of spying more difficult, but the death of trust. After the disasters of 2003 over Iraq it is hard to accept the idea that the senior echelons of the intelligence services are primarily motivated by duty and patriotism, as they would have us believe.
The Joint Intelligence Committee that colluded with Alastair Campbell to foist the Iraq War on a sceptical British public contained the heads of all three intelligence services, the head of military intelligence and an array of senior officials from departments across Whitehall experienced in intelligence work.
Not one of them allowed principle, even when it involved British lives, to get in the way of preferment, promotion, pensions and peerages. Some of the guilty men and women still infest our public life. Andrew Parker may be free of these human frailties but he should remember the past and would do well to adopt a more humble and less hectoring tone. After all, most people wish him and his agency well.
The Guardian, for its part, seems to believe that newspapers should have the final say on spook matters, headlining a recent piece on its website:
'The Guardian's critics say journalists cannot be trusted to judge what may damage national security. But the press's track record shows it to be more trustworthy than politicians or spooks.'
And the lawyers are wading in as well. Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, former Director of Public Prosecutions and founder of Matrix Chambers (along with Cherie Blair), sounded off on Monday, suggesting that Parker was using "foolish, self-serving rhetoric". Like all lawyers I suspect he would like the intelligence services to be run by human rights lawyers."
Don't take the shot quite yet, Bond. We're just checking if it will be OK with the European Court of Human Rights."
The arguments on all sides are generally misleading and over the top. Gathering and exploiting intelligence is a state activity reaching into the heart of national security. No government anywhere in the world is going to concede control of its intelligence services to a quango, as some seem to be suggesting. 'Ofspook' indeed!
But however strongly most of us support the work of our spooks this debate has already produced some damaging new information. Chris Huhne, formerly Energy Secretary and as such an ex-officio member of the National Security Council, said that neither the Cabinet nor the NSC were told about GCHQ's Tempora programme - the UK equivalent of Prism that allows mass capture and analysis of millions of phone calls, emails and search engine queries.
Presumably, knowledge about Tempora was on a need-to-know basis and the spooks concluded that Huhne did not need to know. A silly, very silly, decision given that Huhne was in charge of a large chunk of the Critical National Infrastructure at the time.
This is almost certainly part of a pattern as became clear in the revelations about Iraq – if you weren't on side you were out of the loop.
Who guards the guardians? The answer is not campaigning journalists who imagine a state conspiracy behind every routine intercept, and thirst, unhealthily, for the glory of Woodward and Bernstein; or lefty lawyers itching to infiltrate human rights legislation into the heart of our national security effort. The answer is the Intelligence and Security Committee of parliament. It's all we have got. It's all we can have. It should be enough. But we need to think hard about its membership and powers. Give the thing some credibility.
Interestingly, a number of public figures on both sides of the argument have expressed dissatisfaction with current chairman Sir Malcolm's toadying establishment line. That there was no room for Sir Malcolm around the coalition cabinet table is not a reason for him to be appointed by the prime minister to a key committee of such overriding importance just now.
The intelligence services have great power and influence behind the scenes. It may seem paradoxical, but if they wish to preserve their reputations they should lobby hard for the ISC to be run on more robust and independent lines - by somebody else. ·