So, the appearance of the heads of Britain’s intelligence services – MI5’s Andrew Parker, MI6’s Sir John Sawers, and GCHQ’s Sir Iain Lobban – before the Intelligence and Security Committee in Parliament yesterday went exactly as planned.
Billed by the press as a “grilling”, the session lasted slightly longer than it takes Hibs to lose a Scottish Cup Final – ninety minutes as opposed to half that for the Hibees, if recent appearances are anything to go by, (something I know from painful first-hand experience).
Appearing on behalf of “the people” – that is to say, us, the ones who are being spied on and having our fundamental rights breached on a daily basis by the British State – were a collection of individuals from the backbenches of our parliamentary chambers, two of whom are Sirs, and another two of whom are Lords, known collectively as the Intelligence and Security Committee, which is chaired by former Defence Minister Malcolm Rifkind, obviously the perfect impartial observer to oversee the activities of the British intelligence community.
Commenting on yesterday’s questioning of the heads of the UK intelligence agencies by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, Reprieve’s Strategic Director, Cori Crider said:
Today’s hearing was billed as a grilling, but was nothing more than a damp squib. It gave a clear demonstration, if one were needed, of just how inadequate the ISC is as a watchdog on the intelligence services.
One of the many elephants in the room was the UK’s involvement in Libyan rendition and torture. Not one member of the ISC asked about MI6’s role in ‘rendering’ the wives and children of Gaddafi opponents back to the dictator’s prisons in 2004 – an incident of which the ISC was completely unaware when it cleared the services of involvement in rendition and torture in 2007.
They also failed to question GCHQ over its role in providing support to the CIA’s covert drone programme – which has killed hundreds of civilians in Pakistan and Yemen, and violates international law.
The ISC’s inadequacy shows why the courts are so important to ensure abuses by the secret parts of the state are kept in check – yet the Government is doing its best to undermine our justice system, introducing secret courts and cutting back legal aid and judicial review. These moves must be resisted.
Given all of this, the only surprise was that nobody cracked open a bottle of port and started passing around cigars during the proceedings in which Britain’s intelligence chiefs were asked questions about almost everything they have been doing all these years, everything, that is, except the fundamental breach of human rights committed by their conducting a mass surveillance programme of the British population – in clear breach of the European Charter of Human Rights.
For the fact is that the vast majority of the questions posed to the intelligence chiefs yesterday were related to matters which have nothing at all to do with the mass surveillance operation which had led to their parliamentary appearance, at least if The Guardian’s live stream coverage was anything to go by.
The questions ranged from how things were going in Northern Ireland, to how big a threat North Korea represented, to dark mutterings about Iran’s nuclear programme, and also included queries as to why the intelligence community had not foreseen the Arab Spring, whether MI6 was ever complicit in torture with third party countries, and Parker explaining that Britain’s presence on Afghanistan was vital to keeping “terrorism off the streets”… of London naturally.
Almost an hour of this child’s play had gone by before Rifkind, in the meekest of terms, put it to these guardians of our liberty that some people might think that the biggest threat came from GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 themselves, with their mass surveillance programme known as TEMPORA.
This question was neatly sidestepped on two occasions by Britain’s spymasters with recourse to the “needle in the haystack” metaphor which, in the context, is nothing short of gobbledygook.
British intelligence has been harvesting our personal correspondence and phone calls for years without our permission or our knowledge. There is no needle; there is no hay; there is no haystack.
The only thing which was emphasised in terms of mass surveillance was just how much damage the Snowden revelations had done to “national security”.
As far as I know, nobody asked why on earth David Miranda had been arrested, and if there was any way of interpreting that arrest as anything other than a sinister and ominous development, a very dark day for democracy in these isles.
Long and short: yesterday was another charade of British democracy, and another day in which the people of Scotland were denied credible and robust democratic representation concerning a matter which affects us all – YES voters, NO voters, and don’t knowers alike: our right to privacy and freedom of speech.
The Intelligence and Security Committee had billed the day as a way of testing whether Britain’s Secret Services were “fit for purpose” in the modern age.
But most rational onlookers will have drawn a different conclusion, and a much broader one at that: it is British democracy itself which is “not fit for purpose” in the modern age.
The sooner Scotland frees itself from the complacent, antiquated and feeble-minded old boys’ club known as the Westminster Parliament, the better for democracy in these islands.