Here is a short talk I gave at the recent Logan Symposium in London, where I discussed a more holistic approach for both journalists and their sources:
Here is my keynote speech at the recent Internetdagarna (Internet Days) conference in Stockholm, Sweden, discussing all things whistleblower, spy, surveillance, privacy and TTIP:
This morning, I would say at the crack of dawn but it was still dark, I was invited on to Aftonbladet TV to talk about my story, the role of whistleblowers, the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence, and threats to the internet. Here is the interview:
January 16, 2014
Contact: Coleen Rowley (email: firstname.lastname@example.org) or Annie Machon (email: email@example.com)
Chelsea Manning Awarded Sam Adams Integrity Prize for 2014
Announcement by Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence (SAAII)
The Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence (SAAII) have voted overwhelmingly to present the 2014 Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence to Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning.
A Nobel Peace Prize nominee, U.S. Army Pvt. Manning is the 25 year-old intelligence analyst who in 2010 provided to WikiLeaks the “Collateral Murder” video – gun barrel footage from a U.S. Apache helicopter, exposing the reckless murder of 12 unarmed civilians, including two Reuters journalists, during the “surge” in Iraq. The Pentagon had repeatedly denied the existence of the “Collateral Murder” video and declined to release it despite a request under the Freedom of Information Act by Reuters, which had sought clarity on the circumstances of its journalists’ deaths.
Release of this video and other documents sparked a worldwide dialogue about the importance of government accountability for human rights abuses as well as the dangers of excessive secrecy and over-classification of documents.
On February 19, 2014 Pvt. Manning — currently incarcerated at Leavenworth Prison — will be recognized at a ceremony in absentia at Oxford University’s prestigious Oxford Union Society for casting much-needed daylight on the true toll and cause of civilian casualties in Iraq; human rights abuses by U.S. and “coalition” forces, mercenaries, and contractors; and the roles that spying and bribery play in international diplomacy.
The Oxford Union ceremony will include the presentation of the traditional SAAII Corner-Brightener Candlestick and will feature statements of support from former SAAII awardees and prominent whistleblowers. Members of the press are invited to attend.
On August 21, 2013 Pvt. Manning received an unusually harsh sentence of 35 years in prison for exposing the truth — a chilling message to those who would call attention to wrongdoing by U.S. and “coalition” forces.
Under the 1989 Official Secrets Act in the United Kingdom, Pvt. Manning, whose mother is British, would have faced just two years in prison for whistleblowing or 14 years if convicted under the old 1911 Official Secrets Act for espionage.
Former senior NSA executive and SAAII Awardee Emeritus Thomas Drake has written that Manning “exposed the dark side shadows of our national security régime and foreign policy follies .. [her] acts of civil disobedience … strike at the very core of the critical issues surrounding our national security, public and foreign policy, openness and transparency, as well as the unprecedented and relentless campaign by this Administration to snuff out and silence truth tellers and whistleblowers in a deliberate and premeditated assault on the 1st Amendment.”
Previous winners of the Sam Adams Award include Coleen Rowley (FBI); Katharine Gun (formerly of GCHQ, the National Security Agency’s equivalent in the UK); former UK Ambassador Craig Murray; Larry Wilkerson (Col., US Army, ret.; chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell); Julian Assange (WikiLeaks); Thomas Drake (NSA); Jesselyn Radack (former ethics attorney for the Department of Justice, now National Security & Human Right Director of the Government Accountability Project); Thomas Fingar (former Deputy Director of National Intelligence, who managed the key National Intelligence Estimate of 2007 that concluded Iran had stopped working on a nuclear weapon four years earlier); and Edward Snowden (former NSA contractor and systems administrator, currently residing in Russia under temporary asylum).
The Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence are very proud to add Pvt. Manning to this list of distinguished awardees.
Here is my recent talk at the CCC in Hamburg, discussing the war on terror, the war on drugs, the war in the internet and the war on whistleblowers:
A recent interview on BBC World Service radio, on “World Have Your Say”. An interesting debate with some other former intelligence types:
First published by RT Op-Edge.
Sir Andrew Parker, the recently elevated Director General of the UK’s domestic security Service (MI5) yesterday made both his first public speech and a superficially robust defence of the work of the intelligence agencies. Reading from the outside, it sounds all patriotic and noble.
And who is to say that Parker does not believe this after 30 years on the inside and the MI5 groupthink mentality being what it is? Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. However, I have two problems with his speech, on both a micro and a macro scale.
Let’s start with the micro — ie the devil in the detail — what is said and, crucially, what is left unsaid. First up: oversight, which the spook apologists have dwelt on at great length over the last few months.
I wrote about this last week, but here’s some of that devilish detail. Parker correctly explains what the mechanisms are for oversight within MI5: the Home Office warrants for otherwise illegal activities such as bugging; the oversight commissioners; the Complaints Tribunal; the Intelligence and Security Committee in Parliament. This all sounds pretty reasonable for a democracy, right?
Of course, what he neglects to mention is how these systems can be gamed by the spies.
The application for warrants is a tick-box exercise where basic legal requirements can be by-passed, the authorising minister only ever sees a summary of a summary.… ad infinitum.… for signature, and never declines a request in case something literally blows up further down the line.
Sure, there are independent commissioners who oversee MI5 and its surveillance work every year and write a report. But as I have written before, they are given the royal treatment during their annual visit to Thames House, and officers with concerns about the abuse of the warrantry system are barred from meeting them. Plus, even these anodyne reports can highlight an alarming number of “administrative errors” made by the spies, no doubt entirely without malice.
The complaints tribunal — the body to which we can make a complaint if we feel we have been unnecessarily spied on, has always found in favour of the spies.
And finally, the pièce de résistance, so to speak: the Intelligence and Security Committee in parliament. How many times do I have to write this? Top cops and Parker’s spy predecessors have admitted to lying successfully to the ISC for many years. This is not meaningful oversight, nor is the fact that the evidence of earlier major intelligence whistleblowers was ignored by the ISC, except for the part where they might be under investigation by MI5 themselves.…
Of course, the current Chair of the ISC, Sir Malcom Rifkind, has entered the lists this summer to say that the ISC has just acquired new powers and can now go into the spies’ lairs, demand to see papers, and oversee operational activities. This is indeed good, if belated, news, but from a man who has already cleared GCHQ’s endemic data-mining as lawful, one has to wonder how thorough he will be.
While the committee remains chosen by the PM, answerable only to the PM, who can also vet the findings, this committee is irredeemably undemocratic. It will remain full of credulous yes-men only too happy to support the status quo.
Secondly, what are the threats that Parker talks about? He has worked for MI5 for 30 years and will therefore remember not only the Cold War era, where Soviet spies were hunted down, but also the very real and pervasive threat of IRA bombs regularly exploding on UK streets. At the same time hundreds of thousands of politically active UK citizens were aggressively investigated. A (cold) war and the threat of terrorism allowed the spies a drag-net of surveillance even then.
How much worse now, in this hyper-connected, data-mining era? One chilling phrase that leapt out at me from Parker’s speech was the need to investigate “terrorists and others threatening national security”. National security has never been legally defined for the purposes of UK law, and we see the goal posts move again and again. In the 1980s, when Parker joined MI5, it was the “reds under the bed”, the so-called subversives. Now it can be the Occupy group encamped in the City of London or environmental activists waving placards.
So now for my macro concerns, which are about wider concepts. Parker used his first public speech to defend not only the work of his own organisation, but also to attack the whistleblowing efforts of Edward Snowden and the coverage in The Guardian newspaper. He attempts to seamlessly elide the work and the oversight models of MI5 and GCHQ. And who is falling for this? Well, much of the UK media apparently.
This muddies the waters. The concerns about Snowden’s disclosures are global — the TEMPORA project affects not only the citizens of the UK but people across Europe and beyond. For Rifkind or the Foreign Secretary to complacently say that GCHQ is overseen by them and everything is hunkey-dorey is just not good enough, even for the hapless citizens of the UK. How much more so for those unrepresented people across the world?
The IOCA (1985) and later and much-abused RIPA (2000) laws were written before the UK government could have conceived of the sheer scale of the internet. They are way out of date — 20th century rolling omnibus warrants hoovering up every scrap of data and being stored for unknown times in case you might commit a (thought?) crime in the future. This is nothing like meaningful oversight.
Unlike the UK, even the USA is currently having congressional hearings and media debates about the limits of the electronic surveillance programme. Considering America’s muscular response after 9/11, with illegal invasions, drone strikes, CIA kill lists and extraordinary kidnappings (to this day), that casts the UK spy complacency in a particularly unflattering light.
Plus if 58,000 GCHQ documents have really been copied by a young NSA contractor, why are Parker and Rifkind not asking difficult questions of the American administration, rather than continuing to justify the antiquated British oversight system?
Finally, Parker is showing his age as well as his profession when he talks about the interwebs and all the implications. As I said during my statement to the LIBE committee in the European Parliament:
- Without free media, where we can all read, write, listen and discuss ideas freely and in privacy, we are all living in an Orwellian dystopia, and we are all potentially at risk. These media must be based on technologies that empower individual citizens, not corporations or foreign governments. The Free Software Foundation has been making these recommendations for over two decades.
- The central societal function of privacy is to create the space for citizens to resist the violation of their rights by governments and corporations. Privacy is the last line of defense historically against the most potentially dangerous organisation that exists: the nation state. Therefore there is no ‘balance between privacy and security’ and this false dichotomy should not be part of any policy debate.
The disparity in response to Edward Snowden’s disclosures within the USA and the UK is astonishing. In the face of righteous public wrath, the US administration is contorting itself to ensure that it does not lose its treasured data-mining capabilities: congressional hearings are held, the media is on the warpath, and senior securocrats are being forced to admit that they have lied about the efficacy of endemic surveillance in preventing terrorism.
Just this week General Alexander, the head of the NSA with a long track record of
misleading lying to government, was forced to admit that the endemic surveillance programmes have only helped to foil a couple of terrorist plots. This is a big difference from the previous number of 54 that he was touting around.
Cue calls for the surveillance to be reined in, at least against Americans. In future such surveillance should be restricted to targeted individuals who are being actively investigated. Which is all well and good, but would still leave the rest of the global population living their lives under the baleful stare of the US panopticon. And if the capability continues to exist to watch the rest of the world, how can Americans be sure that the NSA et al won’t stealthily go back to watching them once the scandal has died down — or just ask their best buddies in GCHQ to do their dirty work for them?
I’m sure that the UK’s GCHQ will be happy to step into the breach. It is already partially funded by the NSA, to the tune of $100 million over the last few years; it has a long history of circumventing US constitutional rights to spy on US citizens (as foreigners), and then simply passing on this information to the grateful NSA, as we know from the old Echelon scandal; and it has far more legal leeway under British oversight laws. In fact, this is positively seen to be a selling point to the Americans from what we have seen in the Snowden disclosures.
GCHQ is absolutely correct in this assessment — the three primary UK intelligence agencies are the least accountable and most legally protected in any western democracy. Not only are they exempt from any real and meaningful oversight, they are also protected against disclosure by the draconian 1989 Official Secrets Act, designed specifically to criminalise whistleblowers, as well as having a raft of legislation to suppress media reporting should such disclosures emerge.
This might, indeed, be the reason that the UK media is not covering the Snowden disclosures more extensively — a self-censoring “D” Notice has been issued against the media, and The Guardian had its UK servers smashed up by the secret police. 1930s Germany, anyone?
Defenders of the status quo have already been out in force. Foreign Secretary William Hague, who is notionally responsible for GCHQ, said cosily that everything was legal and proportionate, and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the current chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee in parliament last week staunchly declared that the ISC had investigated GCHQ and found that its data mining was all legal as it had ministerial approval.
Well that’s all OK then. Go back to sleep, citizens of the UK.
What Hague and Rifkind neglected to say was that the ministerial warrantry system was designed to target individual suspects, not whole populations. Plus, as the Foreign secretary in charge of MI6 at the time of the illegal assassination plot against Gaddafi in 1996, Rifkind of all people should know that the spies are “economical with the truth”.
In addition, as I’ve written before, many former top spies and police have admitted that they
misled lied to the ISC. Sure, Rifkind has managed to acquire some new powers of oversight for the ISC, but they are still too little and 20 years too late.
This mirrors what has been going on in the US over the last few years, with senior intelligence official after senior official being caught out lying to congressional committees. While in the UK statements to the ISC have to date not been made under oath, statements made to the US Congress are — so why on earth are apparent perjurers like Clapper and Alexander even still in a job, let alone not being prosecuted?
It appears that the US is learning well from its former colonial master about all things official secrecy, up to and including illegal operations that can be hushed up with the nebulous and legally undefined concept of “national security”, the use of fake intelligence to take us to war, and the persecution of whistleblowers.
Except the US has inevitably super-sized the war on whistleblowers. While in the UK we started out with the 1911 Official Secrets Act, under which traitors could be imprisoned for 14 years, in 1989 the law was amended to include whistleblowers — for which the penalty is 2 years on each charge.
The US, however, only has its hoary old Espionage Act dating back to 1917 and designed to prosecute traitors. With no updates and amendments, this is the act that is now rolled out to threaten modern whistleblowers working in the digital age. And the provisions can go as far as the death penalty.
President Obama and the US intelligence establishment are using this law to wage a war on whistleblowers. During his presidency he has tried to prosecute seven whistleblowers under this Espionage Act — more than all the previous presidents combined — and yet when real spies are caught, as in the case of the Russian Spy Ring in 2010, Obama was happy to cut a deal and send them home.
An even more stark example of double standards has emerged this August, when a leak apparently jeopardised an ongoing operation investigating a planned Al Qaeda attack against a US embassy in the Middle East. This leak has apparently caused immediate and quantifiable damage to the capabilities of the NSA in monitoring terrorism, and yet nobody has been held to account.
But, hey, why bother with a difficult investigation into leaking when you can go after the low-hanging fruit — otherwise known as principled whistleblowers who “out” themselves for the public good?
This to me indicates what the US intelligence infrastructure deems to be the real current issue — “the insider threat” who might reveal crucial information about state crimes to the world’s population.
And yet the US representatives still trot out the tired old lines about terrorism. Senator Lindsey Graham stated this week that the current level of endemic surveillance would have prevented 9/11. Well, no, as previous intelligence personnel have pointed out. Coleen Rowley — Time Person of the Year 2002 — is famous for highlighting that the US intelligence agencies had prior warning, they just didn’t join the dots. How much worse now would this process be with such a tsunami of data-mined intelligence?
In summary, it’s good to see at least a semblance of democratic oversight being played out in the USA, post-Snowden. It is a shame that such a democratic debate is not being held in the UK, which is now the key enabler of the USA’s chronic addiction to electronic surveillance.
However, I fear it is inevitably too little too late. As we have seen through history, the only protection against a slide towards totalitarianism is a free media that allows a free transfer of ideas between people without the need to self-censor. The global US military-security complex is embedded into the DNA of the internet. We cannot rely on the USA to voluntarily hand back the powers it has grabbed, we can only work around them as Brazil has suggested it will do, and as the EU is contemplating.
Other than that, responsibility for our privacy rests in our own hands.
Last week I was invited to discuss the control of the media by the spies and the government apparatus by the Centre for Media Studies at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga. Many thanks to Hans, Anders and the team for inviting me, and to Inese Voika , the Chair of Transparency International in Latvia, for setting the scene so well.
I focused particularly on how journalists can work with and protect whistleblowers:
In a sensational article in a UK newspaper last weekend, the former head of the UK’s foreign intelligence gathering agency, MI6, appears to have broken the code of omertà around the fraudulent intelligence case used as the pretext for the Iraq war in 2003.
Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6 and current Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, contacted the UK’s Mail on Sunday newspaper to state that he had written his version of the (ab)use of intelligence in the run-up to the US/UK invasion of Iraq. With the long-awaited and much-delayed official Chilcot Enquiry into the case for war about to be published, Dearlove is obviously aware that he might be blamed for the “sexing up” of the intelligence, and that Teflon Tony Blair might once again shuffle off all responsibility.
You’ll no doubt have some vague recollection that, in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, the British government produced a couple of reports “making a case for war”, as Major General Michael Laurie said in his evidence to the enquiry in 2011: “We knew at the time that the purpose of the [September] dossier was precisely to make a case for war, rather than setting out the available intelligence, and that to make the best out of sparse and inconclusive intelligence the wording was developed with care.”
The first such report, the September Dossier (2002), is the one most remembered, as this did indeed “sex up” the case for war as the deceased Iraqi weapons inspector Dr David Kelly exposed. It also included the fraudulent intelligence about Saddam Hussein trying to acquire uranium from Niger. It was this latter claim that Colin Powell used to such great effect at the UN Security Council.
Also, just six weeks before the attack on Iraq, the “Dodgy” Dossier, based largely on a 12-year old PhD thesis culled from the Internet, but containing nuggets of raw MI6 intelligence — was presented by spy and politician alike as ominous premonitory intelligence.
Most memorably in the UK, it led to the bogus “Brits 45 minutes from Doom” front-page headline in Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun newspaper, no less, on the eve of the crucial war vote in Parliament.
Interestingly from a British legal position, it appears that Tony Blair and his spin doctor Alastair Campbell released this report without the prior written permission of the head of MI6, which means that they would appear to be in breach of the UK’s draconian secrecy law, the Official Secrets Act (1989).
Thus was made the dodgy case for war. All lies — millions of deaths and many more maimed, wounded, and displaced, yet no one held to account.
Subsequently, there was also the notorious leaked Downing Street Memo, where Sir Richard Dearlove was minuted as saying that the intelligence and facts were being fitted around the [predetermined war] policy.
On July 23, 2002 at a meeting at 10 Downing Street, Dearlove briefed Tony Blair and other senior officials on his talks with his American counterpart, CIA Director George Tenet, in Washington three days before.
In the draft minutes of that briefing, which were leaked to the London Times and published on May 1, 2005, Dearlove explains that George Bush had decided to attack Iraq and the war was to be “justified by the conjunction of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.” While then-Foreign Secretary Jack Straw points out that the case was “thin,” Dearlove explains matter-of-factly, “the intelligence and facts are being fixed around the policy.”
There is no sign in the minutes that anyone hiccuped — much less demurred — at ”making a case for war” and furthering Blair’s determination to join Bush in launching the kind of “war of aggression” outlawed by the post-world war Nuremberg Tribunal and the UN treaty.
The acquiescence of the chief spies helped their political masters mainline into the body politic unassessed, raw intelligence and forged documents, with disastrous consequences for the people of Iraq and the world.
Yet Dearlove long remained unrepentant. Even as recently as 2011, post-retirement and bloated with honours, he continued to deny culpability. When questioned about the Downing Street Memo during an address to the prestigious Cambridge University Union Society by the fearless and fearsomely bright student, Silkie Carlo, Dearlove tried grandiloquently to brush her aside.
But were the remarks in the Memo really “taken out of context” as Dearlove tried to assert? No – the text of the Memo was clear and explicit.
So Dearlove could potentially have saved millions of lives across the Middle East if he had gone public then, rather than now as he is threatening, with his considered professional opinion about the intelligence facts being fitted around a preconceived war policy.
Would it not be lovely if these retired servants of the crown, replete with respect, status and honours, could actually take a stand while they are in a position to influence world events?
Doing so now, purely to preserve his reputation rather than to preserve lives, is even more “ethically flexible” than you would normally expect of an average MI6 intelligence officer. Perhaps that is why he floated to the top of the organisation.
Dearlove is right to be worried about how both Chilcot and history will judge him. These intelligence failures and lies have been picked over and speculated about for years. They are an open secret.
But holding the gun of disclosure to the UK government’s head smacks of desperation. He is quoted as saying that he has no plans to breach the Official Secrets Act by publishing his memoirs. But by publishing an account of the run-up to the Iraq war, he would be still guilty of a breach of the OSA. It has been established under UK law that any unauthorised disclosure crosses the “clear bright line” of the law. And Dearlove seems well aware of this – his original plan was for his account to be made available after his death.
I can see why he would plan that – firstly he would not risk prosecution under the draconian terms of the OSA, but his account would, in his view, set the record straight and protect his reputation for posterity. A posthumous win-win.
The official motto of the UK spies is “Regnum Defende” — defence of the realm. Serving intelligence officers mordantly alter this to “Rectum Defende” — politely translated as watch your back.
Dearlove seems to be living up to the motto. He must be one very frightened old man to be contemplating such premature publication.
With credit and thanks to former CIA analyst, current truth-teller and general pain in the “regnum” to the intelligence establishment, Ray McGovern, and also Sander Venema for his elegantly classical reworking of the final image.
Following the awful murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich last week, the political securocrats who claim to represent the interests of the British intelligence services have swung into action, demanding yet further surveillance powers for MI5 and MI6 “in order to prevent future Woolwich-style attacks”.
As I’ve written before, it was heartening that the UK Prime Minister said in the aftermath of the attack that there would be no knee-jerk security reaction. However, that has not deterred certain intelligence sock-puppets from political opportunism — they stridently call for the resurrection of the draft Communications Data Bill that was earlier this year kicked into the long grass. If the hawks are successful, the new law would have implications not only for our freedoms at home, but also for our policy and standing abroad.
Recently the civil liberties camp acquired a surprising ally in this debate, with MI5 unexpectedly entering the fray. And rightly so. There is absolutely no need for this new legislation, the requisite powers are already in place. Senior security sources have argued that those citing the Woolwich attack to promote the snoopers’ charter are using a “cheap argument”.
As I said in this recent BBC radio interview, all the necessary laws are already in place for MI5 either to passively monitor or aggressively investigate persons of interest under the original terms of IOCA (1985) and updated in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA 2000).
There now appears to be little doubt that the two Woolwich suspects were well and truly on the MI5 radar. It has been reported that they had been targets for at least 8 years and that Michael Adebolajo had been approached to work as an agent by MI5 as recently as 6 months ago.
One of his friends, Abu Nusaybah, recorded an interview for BBC’s Newsnight programme last week, only to be arrested by counter-terrorism police immediately afterwards. He stated that Adebolajo had been tortured and threatened with rape after his arrest in Kenya en route to Somalia, and that this treatment may have flipped him into more violent action. Indeed, the tale gets ever murkier, with reports yesterday stating that Adebolajo was snatched by the SAS in Kenya on the orders of MI5.
Other information has since been released by the organisation CagePrisoners indicating that Adebolajo’s family and friends had also been harrassed to pressurize him into reporting to MI5.
All of which obviates the early claims that Adebolajo was either a “lone wolf” or a low-priority target. It certainly indicates to me that MI5 will have at the very least been monitoring Adebolajo’s communications data, especially if they were trying to recruit him as a source. If that indeed turns out to have been the case, then without doubt MI5 will also have been intercepting the content of his communications, to understand his thinking and assess his access. Anything less would have been slipshod — a dereliction of duty — and all this could and should have been done under the existing terms of RIPA.
So what are the chances of some real oversight or answers?
If we’re talking about an independent inquiry, the chances are slim: the Inquiries Act (2005) passed little noticed into law, but it means that the government and the department under investigation can pretty much determine the scope and terms of the inquiry to which they are subject.
However, might we nail the flag of hope to the mast of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC) — the committee tasked with overseeing the work of the UK intelligence agencies? The new DG of MI5, Andrew Parker, has already submitted a written report about Woolwich and will be giving evidence to the ISC in person next week about whether MI5 missed some vital intelligence or dropped the ball.
Th ISC of Parliament was established as part of the Intelligence Services Act (1994) — the law that finally brought MI6 and GCHQ under the umbrella of notional democratic oversight. MI5 had already come into the legal fold with the Security Service Act (1989).
As I have written before, initially the ISC was a democratic fig-leaf — its members were appointed by the PM not Parliament, it reported directly to the PM, and its remit only covered the policy, finance and administration of the UK’s intelligence agencies.
Until this year the ISC could not investigate operational matters, nor could it demand to see documents or question top spooks under oath. Indeed, it has been well reported that senior spies and police have long evaded meaningful scrutiny by being “economical with the truth”.
Former MI5 DG Sir Stephen Lander in 2001 said “I blanche at some of the things I declined to tell the committee early on”; a more recent DG, Sir Jonathan Evans, had to admit in 2008 that MI5 had lied about its involvement in torture; and Lord Blair, former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, had to apologise in 2008 for misleading the ISC about the number of thwarted terrorist attacks on his watch.
However the current Chair of the ISC, Sir Malcom Rifkind, has pursued a more muscular oversight role. And it seems he has at least won some battles. The one good element to have come out of the contentious Justice and Security Act (2013) appears to be that the ISC has more direct accountability to Parliament, rather than just to the PM (the devil is expressed in the detail: the ISC is now “of” Parliament, rather than “in” Parliament…).
Somewhat more pertinently, the ISC can now investigate operational matters, demand papers and witnesses, and it appears they now have a special investigator who can go and rummage around the MI5 Registry for information.
It remains to be seen how effective the ISC will realistically be in holding the intelligence agencies to account, even with these new powers. However, Sir Malcolm Rifkind has good reason to know how slippery the spies can be — after all, he was the Foreign Secretary in 1995/6, the years when MI6 was funding Al Qaeda associates to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi of Libya. The attack went wrong, innocent people were killed and, crucially, it was illegal under UK law, as MI6 had not requested the prior written permission for such a plot from the Foreign Secretary, as required under Section 7(1) of the aforementioned ISA (1994). Rifkind has always claimed that he was not told about the plot by MI6.
So, in the interests of justice let us hope that the Rifkind and the other members of the ISC fully exercise their powers and that MI5’s new DG, Andrew Parker is somewhat more frank about the work of his agency than his predecessors have been. It is only through greater honesty and accountability that our intelligence agencies can learn from the mistakes of the past and better protect our country in the future.