From debates to processes: trajectories of intelligence oversight in the UK

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On 17 October 2019, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) handed their report on Russian interference into the British democracy to Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The ISC is a bipartisan committee mandated by the British Parliament to oversee the British intelligence services – replacing discussions with formal parliamentary procedures.

Following significant delays to its release, the report saw the light of day only nine months later. As a result, questions regarding the ISC’s ability to fulfil its brief have begun to be asked more loudly. This has only been exacerbated by the failed installation of Chris Grayling MP to committee Chairmanship  . With members of the ISC being nominated and not elected, and with recent events exposing the limits of the committee’s independence, how effective are current procedures of democratic oversight on holding intelligence services and their ministers to account? And is a nominated committee truly more efficient than open parliamentary discussions?

The 1984 controversy surrounding union membership for Government Communication Head Quarters (GCHQ) employees generated the first substantial debates on intelligence services and democratic oversight in Parliament. To illustrate this point, that year  there were over three hundred mentions of GCHQ in Parliament; in all its previous history there had been just fourteen. The rest of the decade continued this trend with increased attention for the intelligence services by parliamentarians. Here, debates frequently turned  to questions of the politicisation of security as well as principles of parliamentary and collective democracy.

Of those debates, the 1985 Interception of Communications Bill is notable for opposing parliamentary sovereignty and royal prerogative – that is, those powers held under sovereign authority but exercised by the executive. The legislation, as asserted in the chamber by former Labour MP Tony Benn, expanded the executive’s ability to deploy surveillance such that it undermined ‘parliamentary democracy.’ He argued that those executive justifications for wiretapping on the grounds of ‘national security’ stripped parliament of its central purpose of discussing and deciding national interests, especially its capacity to determine British security interests.  Benn’s assertion, that ‘security in Britain is controlled by the Prime Minister,’ seems to therefore echo the thought of later academic work regarding the instrumentalization of security  which, despite recent controversies over increasing surveillance through use of prerogative powers in line with Coronavirus measures, receives little mention in contemporary Parliaments.

Two years later, the 1987 House of Commons (services) debate, regarding the Speaker of the House’s decision to suspend Ronan Bennett’s parliamentary pass also centralises themes of security versus parliamentary democracy. Employed as a researcher for then backbencher Jeremy Corbyn, Bennett had been previously linked to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and had been convicted for the murder of a police officer – though this was overturned a year later. The decision to rescind his access was justified by advice received from the security services that Bennett was a ‘security risk,’ an accusation that quickly found its way into the media.                                                                 

The foremost issue that MPs took with this incident, other than asserting that it subverted their right to hire as they please, was that the Speaker had not questioned the reasoning for this advice and that the recommendation was not a matter of public record. As such, neither the accused, his employer, the House services committee, nor the issuer of the ban knew the justification for the advice to exclude Bennett. This led backbench MPs to articulate a broader critique of undefined ‘security risks’ as instruments used to claim authority and to construct boundaries to debate, all whilst avoiding transparency. Tony Benn in this debate raised such limits on open debate in order to critique what he saw as executive overreach, saying that ‘Members of Parliament are in danger of being licensed only to discuss what Ministers want them to discuss.’ Whilst Benn’s words again stand out for what Conservative MP John Biffen called his ‘characteristic zeal,’ upon looking at the debate in full its apparent that references to themes of democratic oversight and its tensions with security were habitual touchstones for this cohort of parliamentarians.

These two accounts highlight that amongst initial debates on the intelligence services, the problematisation of security and liberty, as well as contestations over principles of parliamentary sovereignty, were apparent. This stands in contrast to the belief that these themes are unique to our current moment or else only emerged following 9/11, the so-called “migrant crisis”, or the Snowden revelations. Indeed, these subjects which were evident in the 1980s persisted in parliament into the early 1990s, accumulating momentum such that the government was pressured to establish the ISC. With the creation of the committee, however, direct debates on the intelligence services have become limited to the yearly presentation of the ISC’s report or else to issues with a high public profile. Accompanying this drop in frequency has been a shift away from discussing the politicisation of security and principles of democracy. In their place, there has been a movement towards reflexively supporting intelligence activities and an increasing emphasis on vesting authority in procedures and professionalised bodies.

Whilst this shift has been gradual since 1994 a key case which illustrates a change is the 2013 debate regarding the operations of GCHQ. Held in the wake of revelations by whistle-blower Edward Snowden that the US National Security Agency (NSA) was operating illegalmass surveillance, the debate saw then Foreign Secretary William Hague address questions regarding active GCHQ-NSA cooperation and whether comparative GCHQ initiatives existed.Hague opened the debate by outlining what he saw as the three main issues raised by the controversy, these therefore can inform our reflections on how government positioning has adapted to the existence of the ISC.                       

Firstly, in describing ‘the action that the Government are taking in response to recent events’ the Foreign Secretary solely refers to the ISC. Saying that, they have ‘already received some information from GCHQ and will receive a full report tomorrow,’ and additionally that they ‘will be free to decide what, if any further action’ to take. His response here, barely longer than the included extracts is telling for two reasons. Centrally, Hague seems to equate action by the government with action by the committee or else he seeks to derive legitimacy from the committees presumed authority as a parliamentary body exerting oversight. Secondly, by sidestepping a commitment to substantive action by deferring to potential ISC scrutiny the foreign minister is pushing the discussion far into the future. Any ‘further action’ the committee could take would necessitate a long report process with the possibility of executive delay in publication.                                                     

The second issue raised by Hague, regards how intelligence services work ‘in accordance with UK law’ and democracy. His justification here being that agencies operate under 1994 and 2000 legislation and are therefore legitimate in their actions. Regardless of the flawed assumption that law is necessarily good, which tellingly was not challenged by other debate participants, his point is undermined by his own government’s 2013 Justice and Security Act, which imposed greater restrictions, later that year.                                                                                                     

Lastly, the Secretary’s third issue relates to how the law is upheld in international intelligence cooperation, which he acknowledges is regular between the NSA and GCHQ. He quickly outlines again that legislation alongside oversight by ministers and the ISC ensures adherence to the law, however in contrast to speakers in the 1980s, who might have interrogated the underlying rationalities for these agencies, Hague instead advocates for them through the prism of threat. In doing so he invokes physical and economic security, without a single mention of the preservation of life or democracy. As such, he displays an instrumentalisation of the authority the ISC is supposedly vested with as a scrutinising body, alongside an unreflexive prioritisation of the actions of the intelligence services.

Besides Hague’s statements what is also telling about this debate is what is excluded from the responses and questions to him. Of the forty-one MPs who spoke not one mentioned the word “democracy” nor “rights,” and of the three mentions of “liberty” two came as part of an exchange citing the paradox of Snowden’s invocation of the ideal from within the People’s Republic of China.

The final mention of ‘liberties’ came from former Conservative MP Rory Stewart wherein he urged Hague to focus not on the ‘legal problem’ of secret operations but instead on their repercussions for ‘balancing security and liberty.’ In what constitutes the only Benn-like elevation of the debate, Stewart went on to emphasise that the continuation of these operations relies on an informed public, who ‘through understanding, consent.’ Hague’s response to this assertionwas to offer agreement that the public should be engaged, though he hedged this commitment with a call-back to the greater importance of secrecy as a  guarantor of our security and the cooperation of our intelligence partners.

What is shown through these three debates is that there is no linear development of accountability for the intelligence services. Whilst the ISC provides a mechanism through which a select number of parliamentarians can access information the state has made secret; it has guaranteed neither substantive change in the powers afforded to Parliament nor multifaceted and nuanced debate. Moreover, the committee’s procedures provide ample excuses for governments to deflect or delay, as we have observed with the Russia report, and its annual sessions in parliament often do not receive great consideration. Whilst the executive retains the power of appointment and the ISC’s ability to launch formal investigations is limited, its capacity to achieve significant accountability is narrow.

This article was written as part of the King’s Undergraduate Research fellowship held in the context of the GUARDINT project, which is supported by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Joseph Jarnecki is a MA International Conflict Studies student at King’s College London and the Coordinating Editor for Strife blog. His research interests include the politics of knowledge production, the proceduralisation of democratic accountability, as well as violence and (in)security. He completed his BA in International Relations at King’s. You can follow him @Jarnecki.

Call for Papers: WAR FOR PRESENCE: ART, CONFLICT AND IDENTITY AT THE ART-IR NEXUS

 

A one-day interdisciplinary workshop exploring the crossover between IR and Art History, common concerns, and interdisciplinary advances with a view to establish a productive conceptual, methodological and analytical agenda for IR and Art Historical research. With the support of the BISA Poststructural Politics Working Group.

 

30th June 2018; Department of War Studies, King’s College London, UK

Event rationale:

The nexus between the study of International Relations (IR) and Art History is ripe with conceptual, analytical, and empirical opportunities for critical understanding. Art History has long counted on and developed methods and concepts for the study of specific aesthetic functions, including conflict and identity. Likewise, areas of IR scholarship have addressed in various forms the relevance, function and power of the aesthetic, and has long sought to account for the role of such expression in politics. The ‘Aesthetic Turn’ literature has sought to make this crossover productive. However, scholarship between these fields suffers from a lack of aggregation, particularly examination of clear conceptual links and reflection on analytical objectives shared and contested by both disciplines, and the tensions therein. Though valuable contributions have been made, its analytical promise needs to be revisited. How do IR and Art Historical analyses differ and what are the conceptual and methodological reasons for this? Where can they meet? What might such an interdisciplinary crossover look like in the specifics of each discipline and concrete research and analytical goals?

This one-day workshop seeks to open an interdisciplinary space for new dialogue between IR scholars and Art Historians working on issues of art and conflict. The core objective is to understand and map what constitutes the shared space between art and IR, its tensions, and the concepts and methods necessary for its interdisciplinary engagement and analytical research productivity. The event will bring together key scholars that have experience of this interdisciplinary space and a range of IR and art practitioners.  We are grateful to the BISA Postructuralist Politics Working Group for the grant that made this event possible.

 

Submissions will be sought that relate to

  • Theory, methods, and analytical strategies in both IR and Art History
  • aesthetics and ethics
  • knowledge, power, categorisations and aesthetics
  • images and the dilemma of ‘high art’
  • sites of art and conflict
  • conflict over visibility/invisibility
  • nexus of transnational art world, institutions and its localities
  • aesthetic analysis and its development
  • gendered aesthetics
  • hierarchy and power in aesthetic analysis
  • locating the politics of art as theory and methodology
  • examining aesthetic language
  • postcoloniality in aesthetics and decolonising aesthetics
  • making art international
  • practices and institutional as well as individual power
  • agency between art and IR
  • the body and art in IR and/or conflict

Output

Selected papers presented at the workshop to be developed and submitted as a special issue to Review of International Studies. This special issue is to be edited by Vivienne Jabri (KCL), Laurie Benson (SOAS) and Pablo de Orellana (KCL).

 

Event format:

Convenors: Dr Pablo de Orellana, King’s College London, pablo.de.orellana@kcl.ac.uk, Co-Chair of the KCL Research Centre in International Relations; Dr Laurie Benson, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, lb60@soas.ac.uk; Prof Vivienne Jabri, King’s College London

Funding: There is some limited funding available to contribute towards travel expenses, priority will be given to postgraduate students and early career scholars. Please note that BISA will only reimburse the travel expenses of BISA members. Please detail your funding needs in your submission.

Submissions: All submissions to attend the workshop either presenting a paper or for attendance to be emailed to warforpresence2018@gmail.com by 1st March 2018. Abstracts for papers (200 words max) due 1st March 2018 (midnight) — Applications for attendance due 1st March 2018 (midnight) — Papers due 10th June 2018 (midnight)

Seminar with Salvatore Palidda: Governance of Security and Ignored Insecurities in Contemporary Europe

Salvatore Palidda (University of Genova) and Didier Bigo (KCL and Sciences-Po Paris)

Monday 6th June 2016, 5pm, K0.17, King’s Building, Strand Campus

In this small seminar, Prof. Salvatore Palidda will be exploring some aspects of his latest edited volume, Governance of Security and Ignored Insecurities in Contemporary Europe (Routledge 2016) in conversation with Prof. Didier Bigo. Continue reading

The field of Eurocracy

Conference with Prof. Didier Georgakakis 6 May, 3:30 – 5:30pm, K2.31 Nash Lecture Theatre, 2nd Floor King’s Building, Strand Campus

The Research Centre for International Relations (RCIR) is delighted to host Prof. Georgakakis (Université Paris – la Sorbonne) who will deliver a talk on the field of Eurocracy. This event is organised in the framework of the EU-funded SOURCE project in which researchers of the RCIR are mapping the professions and institutions of security in Europe.

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SOURCE and DTC Special Workshop on Creating and Managing Data

Methods workshop, 6 May, 10am-3pm, 2.21 Waterloo Bridge Wing, Waterloo Campus

For students who are interested in building a database, this special session will present an online, open-access and user-friendly environment to design, create, structure and manage rich datasets. For students who have followed the DTC-course on Visualising Security, this special session will tackle the methodological operations that come before visualising data, i.e. creating and managing data. The workshop will be co-organised with the SOURCE project, which focuses on mapping the institutions and professions of security in Europe. To this end, it is developing a relational database that will be used to gather, centralise and organise data generated by researchers. Continue reading

Why Colombia recycles its wars? Maria Teresa Ronderos talk at RCIR

22nd of January from 2pm – 3.30pm. King’s College London, Waterloo Campus, Franklin Wilking Building, Room 75, ground floor.

Guerras recicladas[4] (1)

Maria Teresa Ronderos will be presenting her book at RCIR, focusing on the question of why Colombia recycles its wars. The book, Guerras Recicladas, is a history of the paramilitary in Colombia that seeks to answer this question. Maria Teresa shall also be discussing issues of freedom of the press following from the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Continue reading

RCIR Debate on Theory and Methods in IR

The RCIR is hosting a debate on the ‘methods turn’ and its implications for theorising ‘the international’. The first piece is provided by Professor Anna Leander of the Copenhagen Business School, and emerges from a Roundtable held in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, and including Claudia Aradau, Didier Bigo, Vivienne Jabri, Anna Leander and Mederic Martin-Maze. The fascinating aspect of the Roundtable was that a paper presented by Mederic on ‘mapping security practices in Europe’ generated a discussion on how sophisticated methodologies that seek to trace and map networks and controversies in what is a transnational terrain of security practices can turn the lens back onto ‘the international’ and its theorisation. We start with Anna Leander’s piece and hope to develop the debate further with other contributions to follow.                                      Prof. Vivienne Jabri, Director KCL Research Centre in International Relations

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SOURCE Workshop: Mapping the Professionals of ‘Societal Security’ in Europe

17-18th November 2014, War studies meeting room, Department of War Studies, King’s Building, King’s College London

The Research Centre of International Relations will hold its 1st SOURCE roundtable on the 17th and 18 th November 2014 in the War Studies Meeting Room. SOURCE is a EC-funded project dealing with societal security in Europe. Within this framework, the RCIR has recently designed methodological principles to map out the professions and institutions in charge of securing society in Europe. This first workshop will invite a group of experts who are conducting similar investigations to reflect and comment on the SOURCE mapping methodology. The discussion will tackle the potential articulations between different mapping methods: network analysis, digital or geometric methods, oral history, prosopography, in situ ethnographic observation, in depth biographic interviews, etc.

The SOURCE team at King’s College London Research Centre on International Relations comprises: Claudia Aradau, Didier Bigo, Vivienne Jabri, Médéric Martin-Mazé. Please see past posts on this Forum for work by our members on the SOURCE project.

Attendance to the workshop is by invitation only except for KCL students. contact: rcir@kcl.ac.uk. Keep an eye on this page for updates and a resume of the workshop.

The full programme for the workshop is here: Workshop SOURCE KCL_ Programme_V.1.9

For more on the SOURCE project, see also: http://www.societalsecurity.net/

 

 

 

First SOURCE Roundtable: Methods and the international

The Research Centre in International Relations will hold the 1st SOURCE roundtable on Wednesday 5th November 2014, 10 :00 – 12 :00. at the War studies meeting room, 6th Floor King’s Building, Strand Campus, King’s college London.

SOURCE is a European Community funded project dealing with societal security in Europe. Within this framework, a team of researchers at KCL is currently designing methodological principles to map out the professions and institutions in charge of securing society in Europe. The first roundtable will discuss how methods construct different understandings of the international. It will link the concrete aspects of contacting actors and collecting observations with the challenge of restoring the sociological and anthropological dimensions of international practice. Anna Leander will open the debate with a short presentation of her own experience in researching the public-private nexus of security. She is a Professor at the Copenhagen Business School (Department for Management, Politics and Philosophy), a Visiting Professor at Institute of International Relations, Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro and a Core team member of CRIC (Centre for the Resolution of International Conflict, http://cric.ku.dk/).

Roundtable participants are: Claudia Aradau, Didier Bigo, Vivienne Jabri, Anna Leander, Médéric Martin-Mazé.

All are welcome to attend. For more details please email kclrcir@kcl.ac.uk

The International in Security

by Pinar Bilgin, Bilkent University

In what follows, I start out by telling the story of Ottoman Sultan Abdülaziz’s visit to the 1867 Paris World Fair. I chose this story because it allows me to tease out—what I term—‘the international in security’. Studying ‘the international in security’ refers inquiring into the ways in which others’ conceptions of the international shape their insecurities and/or conceptions of security. While security as viewed through the lenses of European great powers and later the United States has shaped the study of security, insecurities as experienced and/or conceptualised in the rest of the world did not always find their way into our studies. Let me begin with the story of the Ottoman Sultan before suggesting the need for inquiring into ‘the international in security’.

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