A parliament that cannot defend civil liberties and human rights against the secret state is not fit for purpose and ought to be sent packing. That’s one conclusion you could draw from the pathetic performance of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) yesterday.
Another is that members of the ISC have effectively been so integrated into the three-ringed spying circus of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ that their designated role to check on the work of the agencies is just for show, part of a great game played at our expense.
Each and every member of the ISC is a trusted member of the Commons or Lords, cleared in advance by the same security services they are supposed to be checking up on! No danger of them ever rocking the boat and so it turned out when the chiefs of the three agencies appeared in public together for the first time.
If anyone was waiting for the ISC to grill the three over the extent of mass surveillance revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, they would have been sorely disappointed. "They faced a grilling that wouldn't have scared a puppy," said Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty. "It was tame, predictable, and limp," said Privacy International about the 90-minute session.
They were not asked about issues do with mass surveillance and privacy. No one even mentioned Tempora, the programme that allows GCHQ to access mountains of date from transatlantic cables that carry internet traffic.
Naturally, no one asked why international encryption standards had been compromised by the joint work of the National Security Agency in the US and GCHQ. Or the compromising of corporations like Google and the eavesdropping on the phones of leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel.
Above all, no one on the ISC asked why these programmes had been kept secret from the public and possibly the government. It’s not hard to fathom why the spy chiefs got an easy ride. Hazel Blears, former New Labour counter-terrorism minister, admitted on BBC2’s Newsnight that she had been on “several visits” to GCHQ and was aware of the agency’s “broad capabilities”.
Presumably she was advised that to reveal this would constitute some kind of crime. Blears didn’t take much convincing. “We've had very, very confidential briefings about what the capabilities were and obviously we were satisfied that they were operating within our legal framework.” So that’s alright then.
As the gentle questioning proceeded, the spy chiefs took advantage to assert that articles based on the Snowden material published by the Guardian, the New York Times and the Washington Post had played into the hands of Al-Qaida. Why, the terrorists were even talking about what the leaks meant for their own security, said GCHQ head Sir Iain Lobban.
The head of MI6, Sir John Sawers added: "Our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee. Al-Qaida is lapping this up." He went so far as to claim that the leaks could help dangerous criminals and even paedophiles evade the law.
Yes, the whole state is facing collapse as a result of articles showing how the US and Britain have access to just about every communication they want to intercept, with or without legal authority. This is a standard scare tactic – blame the messenger and accuse them of playing into the hands of the country’s enemies when in fact the real threat comes from the secret spy agencies themselves who are beyond oversight.
The secret state within the state considers itself above parliament, above political control and above the rule of law. They don’t give a jot about the warning from Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the scientist who created the world wide web, that weakening encryption had put at risk transactions made by ordinary people.
As for the ISC, if this is the best parliament can come up with, it shows how unrepresentative and undemocratic this present body is. One is reminded of the words used by Cromwell. When faced with a “Rump” parliament that was doing absolutely nothing useful, he told the sitting: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately ... Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”