November 07, 2013 | Peter Bradwell

Intelligence & Security Committee fails to convince

Today saw the first public questioning of the heads of the UK's secret services by the Intelligence and Security Committee. For anyone looking for incisive probing about the Snowden revelations, it was a disappointing hour and a half.


In the Westminster Hall debate (see ORG's summary of the debate in a previous blog) on oversight of surveillance last week Sir Malcolm Rifkind, chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, invited people to judge the Committee's effectiveness on the basis of the work they do in the coming months: 

"Given our willingness to have our first public hearing with the intelligence chiefs next week in front of the cameras, plus other public sessions, as well as the new powers we are already exercising, I ask right hon. and hon. Members to test whether we use such powers properly."

He was rather making a rod for his own back here. Today's public hearing - rather predictably - did not inspire confidence in the Committee's ability to scrutinise and hold to account the security services they are charged with overseeing.

The questions were very broad, with little follow up. Significant questions about the law and technology were dealt with in a few moments. Sir Iain Lobban was even congratulated by the chair for a fairly dubious - and laboured - analogy involving hay and needles. We didn't see anything like some of the recent grandstanding Committee moments, such as the CMS Committee's grilling of the Murdochs or when Margaret Hodge's Public Accounts Committee held allegedly tax avoiding companies' feet to the flames.

The Committee failed to ask challenging questions or press in depth on the primary issues of law and policy raised by the Snowden revelations. For instance, they didn't press on who decided mass data trawling did not need an explicit parliamentary vote. Or, how do they square data trawls with human rights judgements showing such harvests are going too far?  Why is undermining internet security acceptable?  Why is it fine to break into potentially millions of accounts at Google and Yahoo! when there are legal routes to the same data?

By concentrating on generalities the ISC failed to bite, which is extremely worrying - a key argument is that the UK's oversight regime, that they are part of, is one of the world's most strict.

At the very least the hour and a half session left viewers with the impression that the Committee needs reforming. There are plenty of ideas about how to do this. Whether it is having an member of the opposition as chair or, as Jamie Bartlett suggested today, putting members of the public or civil society groups on the Committee.