Sir Paul Kennedy, the commissioner responsible for overseeing the interception of communications, and Sir Peter Gibson, the intelligence services commissioner, both published their reports last week.
Gibson has, of course, honourably now stood down from his 5-year oversight of MI5, MI6, and GCHQ in order to head up the independent enquiry into spy complicity in torture.
And both the reports say, naturally, that it’s all hunky-dorey. Yes, there were a few mistakes (well, admistrative errors — 1061 over the last year), but the commissioners are confident that these were neither malign in intent nor an indication of institutional failings.
So it appears that the UK spies gained a B+ for their surveillance work last year.
Both commissioners pad out their reports with long-winded descriptions of what precisely their role is, what powers they have, and the full, frank and open access they had to the intelligence officers in the key agencies.
They seem sublimely unaware that when they visit the spy agencies, they are only given access to the staff that the agencies are happy for them to meet — intelligence officers pushed into the room, primped out in their party best and scrubbed behind the ears — to tell them what they want to hear.
Any intelligence officers who might have concerns have, in the past, been rigorously banned from meeting those charged with holding the spies to democratic account.….
.…which is not much different from the oversight model employed when government ministers, the notional political masters of MI6, MI6 and GCHQ, sign off on bugging warrants that allow the aggressive investigation of targets (ie their phones, their homes or cars, or follow them around). Then the ministers are only given a summary of a summary of a summary, an application that has been titrated through many managerial, legal and civil service filters before landing on their desks.
So, how on earth are these ministers able to make a true evaluation of the worth of such an application to bug someone?
They just have to trust what the spies tell them — as do the commissioners.