UK Intelligence and Security Committee to be reformed?

The Guardian’s spook com­ment­ator extraordin­aire, Richard Norton-Taylor, has repor­ted that the cur­rent chair of the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee (ISC) in the UK Par­lia­ment, Sir Mal­colm Rif­kind, wants the com­mit­tee to finally grow a pair.  Well, those weren’t quite the words used in the Grauny, but they cer­tainly cap­ture the gist.

If Rifkind’s stated inten­tions are real­ised, the new-look ISC might well provide real, mean­ing­ful and demo­cratic over­sight for the first time in the 100-year his­tory of  the three key UK spy agen­cies — MI5, MI6, and GCHQ, not to men­tion the defence intel­li­gence staff, the joint intel­li­gence com­mit­tee and the new National Secur­ity Council .

FigleafFor many long years I have been dis­cuss­ing the woe­ful lack of real demo­cratic over­sight for the UK spies.  The privately-convened ISC, the demo­cratic fig-leaf estab­lished under the aegis of the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act (ISA), is appoin­ted by and answer­able only to the Prime Min­is­ter, with a remit only to look at fin­ance, policy and admin­is­tra­tion, and without the power to demand doc­u­ments or to cross-examine wit­nesses under oath.  Its annual reports are always heav­ily redac­ted and have become a joke amongst journalists.

When the remit of the ISC was being drawn up in the early 1990s, the spooks were apo­plectic that Par­lia­ment should have any form of over­sight what­so­ever.  From their per­spect­ive, it was bad enough at that point that the agen­cies were put on a legal foot­ing for the first time.  Spy think­ing then ran pretty much along the lines of “why on earth should they be answer­able to a bunch of here-today, gone-tomorrow politi­cians, who were leaky as hell and gos­siped to journ­al­ists all the time”?

So it says a great deal that the spooks breathed a huge, col­lect­ive sigh of relief when the ISC remit was finally enshrined in law in 1994.  They really had noth­ing to worry about.  I remem­ber, I was there at the time.

This has been borne out over the last 17 years.  Time and again the spies have got away with telling bare­faced lies to the ISC.  Or at the very least being “eco­nom­ical with the truth”, to use one of their favour­ite phrases.  Former DG of MI5, Sir Stephen Lander, has pub­licly said that “I blanche at some of the things I declined to tell the com­mit­tee [ISC] early on…”.  Not to men­tion the out­right lies told to the ISC over the years about issues like whis­tleblower testi­mony, tor­ture, and counter-terrorism meas­ures.

But these new devel­op­ments became yet more fas­cin­at­ing to me when I read that the cur­rent Chair of the ISC pro­pos­ing these reforms is no less than Sir Mal­colm Rif­kind, crusty Tory grandee and former Con­ser­vat­ive For­eign Min­is­ter in the mid-1990s.

For Sir Mal­colm was the For­eign Sec­ret­ary notion­ally in charge of MI6 when the intel­li­gence officers, PT16 and PT16/B, hatched the ill-judged Gad­dafi Plot when MI6 fun­ded a rag-tag group of Islamic extrem­ist ter­ror­ists in Libya to assas­sin­ate the Col­onel, the key dis­clos­ure made by David Shayler when he blew the whistle way back in the late 1990s.

Obvi­ously this assas­sin­a­tion attempt was highly reck­less in a very volat­ile part of the world; obvi­ously it was uneth­ical, and many inno­cent people were murdered in the attack; and obvi­ously it failed, lead­ing to the shaky rap­proche­ment with Gad­dafi over the last dec­ade.  Yet now we are see­ing the use of sim­ilar tac­tics in the cur­rent Libyan war (this time more openly) with MI6 officers being sent to help the rebels in Benghazi and our gov­ern­ment openly and shame­lessly call­ing for régime change.

Malcolm_RifkindBut most import­antly from a legal per­spect­ive, in 1996 the “Gad­dafi Plot” MI6 appar­ently did not apply for prior writ­ten per­mis­sion from Rif­kind — which they were leg­ally obliged to do under the terms of the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act (the very act that also estab­lished the ISC).  This is the fabled, but real, “licence to kill” — Sec­tion 7 of the ISA — which provides immunity to MI6 officers for illegal acts com­mit­ted abroad, if they have the requis­ite min­is­terial permission.

At the time, Rif­kind pub­licly stated that he had not been approached by MI6 to sanc­tion the plot when the BBC Pan­or­ama pro­gramme con­duc­ted a spe­cial invest­ig­a­tion, screened on 7 August 1997.  Rifkind’s state­ment was also repor­ted widely in the press over the years, includ­ing this New States­man art­icle by Mark Thomas in 2002.

That said, Rif­kind him­self wrote earlier this year in The Tele­graph that help should now be given to the Benghazi “rebels” — many of whom appear to be mem­bers of the very same group that tried to assas­sin­ate Gad­dafi with MI6’s help in 1996 — up to and includ­ing the pro­vi­sion of arms.  Rifkind’s view of the leg­al­it­ies now appear to be some­what more flex­ible, whatever his stated pos­i­tion was back in the 90s. 

Of course, then he was notion­ally in charge of MI6 and would have to take the rap for any polit­ical fall-out.  Now he can relax into the role of “quis cus­todiet ipsos cus­todes?”.  Such a relief.

I shall be watch­ing devel­op­ments around Rifkind’s pro­posed reforms with interest.

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