The ISC and Intelligence Oversight: Part One

‘Oversight? How can you have a covert organisation if you have people looking over your shoulder?’

‘I’ve got an oversight meeting. Can you imagine? They think they can look into our closet, as if we’d let them’.

The Good Shepherd

Can we ever have oversight of our intelligence services? If you’re a (fictional) member of the CIA you might not think so. If you work for the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), however, you probably have another opinion. For the entire job of the ISC is to provide just such oversight to the UK’s various intelligence bodies. Indeed, as if to prove its worth, in November 2013 the ISC performed its first public hearing in history. In a live(ish) televised session the heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ sat answering questions about Al-Qaeda, the threat of cyberterrorism and the Snowden affair, among other things. According to the ISC itself, the event was supposed to ‘give an insight into the world of intelligence, and the work the Agencies do on behalf of the UK. It represents a very significant step forward in terms of the openness and transparency of the Agencies.’ Yet, although the Open Evidence Session was interesting, the ‘insight’ it was supposed to provide was rather limited. Nothing of any surprise was revealed and Sir Iain Lobban, Mr Andrew Parker and Sir John Sawers answered exactly as might have been expected of them. Take, for example, when the committee’s questions moved onto the matter of torture and the allegations that have been made against MI5 and MI6. Parker and Sawers’ reaction was to vehemently emphasise the training and protocol in place that should prevent UK intelligence staff becoming complicit in such activities – just as you would expect. In the end, I came away with more questions than had been answered and a less than reassuring feeling that the ISC has everything under control when it comes to the UK’s intelligence services. Instead, this idea of intelligence oversight seemed even more of an oxymoron. The ISC may ask all the questions it likes of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, but what if these questions can’t actually be answered? The intelligence chiefs can give hypothetical answers to hypothetical questions while their words are being broadcast across the country, but does this reflect what really goes on behind their closed doors? Can anybody ever look into their closet?

So what is the ISC?

The ISC was created in 1994 when the Intelligence Services Act finally acknowledged the existence and remit of the UK’s three main intelligence agencies. The role of the committee was ‘to examine the policy, administration and expenditure of the Security Service, Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)’. Later, the Justice and Security Act 2013 reformed the ISC, ‘making it a Committee of Parliament; providing greater powers; and increasing its remit (including oversight of operational activity and the wider intelligence and security activities of Government)’.  After 2013 the ISC was also to examine the work of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC); the Assessments Staff; the National Security Secretariat; Defence Intelligence in the Ministry of Defence; and the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism in the Home Office. Members of the ISC are now appointed by, and report directly to, Parliament. They are within the ‘ring of secrecy’, having access to highly classified materials which intelligence staff are legally required to provide when asked. Which gives us all the official definitions. However, it doesn’t explain the full story of what the ISC does. Surprisingly, although an inordinate amount of attention is paid to intelligence work – from spy fiction and film to academic research and public debate – not as much is said about intelligence oversight and relatively few people have looked directly at the ISC. Those who have, however, have come up with some ideas regarding the committee and its exact purpose which goes beyond the text of the intelligence acts.

Current ISC Chairman, SIr Malcolm Rifkind. Photo courtesy of Chatham House.

Current ISC Chairman, SIr Malcolm Rifkind. Photo courtesy of Chatham House.

Catching the ‘Rogue Elephant’

Most people would perhaps believe that the ISC’s remit should be to catch the ‘rogue elephant’: that the intelligence services are, by their nature, frequently involved in illegal, subversive activity and therefore some sort of oversight is necessary to make sure that they are not doing what they shouldn’t be. The recent stories about the US government tapping Angela Merkel’s phone or using information from Facebook to spy on civilians are just some examples of stories which fuel this fear of rogue intelligence services. The problem with the ‘rogue elephant’ theory, however, is that despite what the popular view is:

intelligence services…are no more likely to go awry than any other agency, public or private…as a general rule, it is simply not the case that intelligence agencies act independently, according to their own or an imagined foreign policy, or violate the law wholesale.

And, even if the intelligence agencies were involved in illegal activity, how is the ISC going to be able to find out? They are investigating people who are specifically trained in deception, used to getting past ‘infinitely more menacing adversaries than a part-time committee of otherwise fully occupied politicians’. If it is the case then, that not only does the ‘rogue elephant’ rarely exist, but that even when it does appear an oversight body is unable to detect, let alone stop it, the question remains, what is the purpose of the ISC?

Instrument of inquiry

Another theory is that the ISC should be viewed as an ‘instrument of inquiry’. Rather catching the ‘rogue elephant’ a more logical use of the ISC might be its capacity to investigate and to suggest solutions to mistakes and misconduct. Inquiries cost time and money: having a standing body of people knowledgeable on the intelligence apparatus which can consistently hold the agencies to account significantly reduces both. However, as an instrument of inquiry the committee has not always been successful – with the issue of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), for example. That Saddam Hussain had WMDs was given as the main reason for the joint British/American invasion of Iraq in March 2003. A paper published by the UK Government in September 2002 to garner support for the war (the infamous ‘September Dossier’) had outlined the intelligence on Iraq’s WMDs. Following the invasion, as it became apparent that the WMDs did not exist, this intelligence came under scrutiny. In September 2003 the ISC published a report:

…to examine whether the available intelligence, which informed the decision to invade Iraq, was adequate and properly assessed and whether it was accurately reflected in Government publications.

This was the committee’s time to shine. Something had gone wrong with Britain’s intelligence, whether it be in the gathering, the analysis or the reporting stage and the ISC was to find out what. Nevertheless, the ISC failed to conduct a satisfactory investigation and its report was criticised for lacking scope and depth. Instead, in February 2004 the Government charged Lord Butler with investigating the matter further. In fact, it was the ISC’s failure in the matter of WMDs that partly led to the Justice and Security Act of 2013 which gave the ISC more teeth to act as an inquiry body. By the act, the committee now has the power to demand material relevant to its investigations, rather than to just request it as prior to 2013.

Part Two to follow.


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