Sunday, 27 October 2013

Parliamentary scrutiny of our spooks‏

Over the past week the Guardian  has carried several news stories or comment articles , each of which criticizes Parliament as an institution, or MPs collectively, for failing to  keep the UK security services to account. The letter below, which was sent  several time sin different versions, was not chosen for publication, hence its posting here:

Simon Jenkins is the latest Guardian columnist to criticize MPs for their ineptitude over scrutinizing our intelligence services ("Guard Liberty? I don't trust MPs to buy a pizza," 25 October)
He follows former Cabinet minister Chris Huhne (“Parliament has forsaken our liberty,” 21 Oct), who himself  joined Jonathan Freedland's powerful comment article (19 Oct.) arguing Parliament has  been insufficiently curious ( along with the rest of the press) over the way the security services have spread their tentacles in monitoring the civilian population.
These articles themselves followed your news reportage (front page 15 & 16 Oct), by your home affairs editor (16 Oct) and first leader (“Politics and security: a pressing need for action,” 16 Oct),  all of which explored the clear failure in the Parliamentary oversight and scrutiny of our state security apparatus.
But Jonathan, Freedland as does Simon Jenkins, conflates Parliament as an institution with individual MPs, in asserting lack of attempts to hold the spooks to account. Indeed two left wing  Labour MPs, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, demonstrates this point perfectly in their letter (19 Oct) arguing for an independent review of the security services, as they judge in their new Early Day Motion (EDM 576) the so-called Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee is unfit for purpose.
When I did research for former Labour MP Llew Smith in the early 1990s, he was initially prevented from even submitting Parliamentary questions on what our intelligence services knew about UK companies breaching export embargoes on sensitive equipment sales to Iraq under the Tory government, because  the Arms-to-Iraq inquiry - which The Guardian reported in detail - was underway  chaired by Sir Richard (later Lord Justice) Scott until he appealed to Sir Peter, who said in response he had no objection to MPs asking such questions while his Inquiry  was in session.
Nearly 20 years on, there remains a significant democratic deficit in Parliament’s capability to scrutinize the nefarious actions of our intelligence and monitoring services, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ.
For example. when veteran Labour  back bench MP Paul Flynn in June asked the foreign secretary how many meetings he, other ministers in his department or departmental officials  have had with their US counterparts on the PRISM data gathering system since May 2010 and whether the Government has given the US government authority to allow the US National Security Agency (NSA) to process data acquired by the NSA on UK citizens at the NSA's new Utah Data Center the now sacked foreign office minister, Alistair Burt, replied unhelpfully:
“It is the long-standing policy of successive governments not to comment in detail on matters of intelligence. This includes discussions with allies and liaison agencies.” (Hansard, 18 June: Column 630W).
Mr Burt ‘s successor, Hugh Robertson, used exactly the same formulation to refuse  to answer his fellow Conservative MP, David Davis, who  had asked whether the Tempora and Prism programmes are " conducted under statutory authority"? (21 Oct: Column 13W)
That is simply not an acceptable reply. 
In the introduction to James Bamford’s  2002 study, Body of Secrets: how America’s NSA and Britain’s GCHQ eavesdrop on the world, he cites Lieutenant General Michael V. Hayden USA, the then director of the US NSA  as  asserting in a public address on 19 October 2000: "The American people have to trust us and in order to trust they have to know about us.”
Bamford also quotes the security service monitors’ motto: 'In God we trust; all others we monitor.'
It does Parliament no credit that the first debate it has held on the surveillance issue (on 22 October) was on  whether the Guardian has damaged national security through its revelations about UK and US surveillance, called by a Tory MP.
Parliament needs to be braver, and to re-assert its public scrutiny role, as your leader asserts -  as it did in the Syria vote in August -  and open up our security services to some critical oversight.

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