The ISC and Intelligence Oversight: Part Two

Part Two

Educational Body

So if it’s not catching the intelligence services doing illegal things, nor is it properly investigating when things do go wrong, perhaps the ISC best serves as an educational organisation. Intelligence work is one of those areas where fact is often obscured by fiction. That up until 1994 you could not even officially acknowledge the existence of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ has further inhibited the understanding of the true nature of our intelligence agencies. Some determined scholars, such as Professor Christopher Andrew, have been doing their best to shed light on this world, but there still remains an element of the unknown when it comes to intelligence work, particularly amongst the general public. It could be said that by holding public hearings and by laying an annual report before Parliament, the ISC is performing a crucial role in educating people on the work of the agencies. However, do we understand more about intelligence work today than we did before the ISC’s creation? Perhaps so, but is that because of the work of the ISC itself? Or is it because MI5, MI6 and GCHQ now have their own websites, and because their chiefs now give interviews to the media and discuss their agencies with think tanks? How much those outside of the ‘ring of secrecy’ can ever truly know about the work of intelligence staff is debatable anyway. As for Parliament, ex-ISC members are often elevated to the House of Lords after leaving the committee, thus making this the body of expertise on intelligence rather than the House of Commons. The sessions in Parliament when the ISC annual reports are presented are notoriously poorly attended. Which, having read some of them myself, is somewhat understandable – the reports are surprisingly mundane, covering issues such as employee relations and problems with computer systems. The truth certainly appears more boring than fiction.

Financial Oversight

With the help of the National Audit Office (NAO), one important function of the committee is that of looking into how the intelligence agencies spend their money. Whether our spending on intelligence is producing ‘value for money’ is, of course, almost impossible to determine. Much of the way the agencies spend their money is dependent on the assessment of the threat level, both at home and abroad, which is of itself complex and fluid. But in other, more day-to-day financial issues, the ISC can play a part – albeit not always to much effect. For example, in its 2004-2005 annual report the committee discussed the progress of the SCOPE project (the introduction of a computer communications systems to link all the agencies). The project was, by then, three years over schedule and 50% over budget. So much for financial oversight.

Is the ISC trying to square the circle? Image courtesy of:

Is the ISC trying to square the circle?
Image courtesy of:

Security Blanket

Given the apparent issues and limitations to its other areas of work, perhaps the most useful thing the ISC does is to provide a security blanket (if you mind the pun) to the public. Maybe, given how uncomfortable intelligence work can sometimes make us, we enjoy knowing that there is a body whose job it is ‘protect’ our interests. Which relates to my first point in Part One about the rogue elephant. Even though, in reality, intelligence staff are not always committing dubious acts, maybe it is healthy for the public to have a little cynicism. After all, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. And if events such as the Open Evidence Session makes us feel better, than arguably the ISC is doing well. The problem with this line of thought is that it would mean that the actual work of the committee is less important that its mere existence, which is not a nice thought, particularly for the ISC members themselves.

Squaring the circle

Given everything we have looked at in both parts of this post, we should be closer to an understanding of what exactly the ISC is and what it does. However, things still remain unclear. There are certainly limitations to what the committee appears able to do in terms of oversight of the UK’s intelligence agencies. It is dubious how much it is able to detect the rogue elephant (if it exists). It has no power to make the Government listen to its judgements and take note of its suggestions: ‘It has discharged its statutory responsibilities when it delivers its reports to the Prime Minister and Parliament.’ Likewise, the committee can only educate people as far as they want to listen and to try to keep an eye on the agencies budget. But the greatest difficulty in trying to analyse the ISC is in deciding if the committee is failing in its remit, or whether it is simply failing to address problems it is not actually charged with remedying. Because, despite the various acts regarding the ISC, its responsibilities remains somewhat blurred. Instead, it seems that for a while the committee has been ‘making it up as it goes along’. As some have noted, perhaps an ultimate flaw with the ISC is that it has been keen ‘to appear “all things to all men”’. It has been said by many that the ISC is among the hardest working of all committees and there is no doubt that trying to understand the complexities of the intelligence services requires aptitude and dedication. Perhaps the committee has simply been spread too thin.

A further problem is the nature of the relationship the ISC has with the intelligence agencies. Being within the ‘ring of secrecy’ is necessary for the ISC to carry out its work, and it could be argued that the committee’s greatest achievement has been to gain the trust of the agencies, allowing it access to sensitive information vital to its function. This was particularly important prior to the 2013 Justice and Security Act, when the committee had no powers to compel intelligence staff to produce requested documents. But does working so closely with those it is trying to oversee create split loyalties for the ISC? As has been observed:

…the Committee at times appears to be attempting to square the circle of supporting the intelligence Agencies and criticising aspects of their behaviour.

Which would suggest that there is something inherently contradictory in the concept of an intelligence oversight organisation – it needs to be at the same time both removed from and part of the intelligence apparatus of the country. In which case, given that the very foundation of its existence is questionable, the ISC appears to be making the best of things. After all, the committee has only been in existence for twenty years and there is no real UK precedence for the work it does. If it has failed at times it has also contributed, in its own way, to creating greater affinity between the public and the intelligence services. Maybe it is enough just for it to exist: that we feel better that it’s there, even if we are only vaguely aware of what it actually does when we are not looking. And if occasionally it makes us think a little deeper about our intelligence agencies and to talk about the issue of oversight, then surely that is a job well done.

Reading List

ISC Annual and Special Reports

‘Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction’ (London: HMSO, 2004).

A. Defty, ‘Educating Parliamentarians about Intelligence: The Role of the British Intelligence and Security Committee’, Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 61, No.4 (2008), pp. 621-641.

J. Glees, P.H.J. Davies & J.N.L. Morrison, The Open Side of Secrecy: Britain’s Intelligence and Security Committee (London: Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

K.G. Robertson, ‘Recent Reform of Intelligence in the United Kingdom: Democratisation or Risk Management?’, Intelligence & National Security, Vol. 13, No. 2 (1998), pp. 144-158.


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