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.

Mass Electronic Surveillance, Security and Rights in Liberal Democracies panel discussion at RCIR

Snapshot of Boundless Informant global heat map of data collection. The color scheme ranges from green (least subjected to surveillance) through yellow and orange to red (most surveillance). Note the '2007' date in the image relates to the document from which the interactive map derives its top secret classification, not to the map itself.

Snapshot of Boundless Informant global heat map of data collection. Color scheme ranges from green (least subjected to surveillance) through yellow and orange to red (most surveillance). The ‘2007’ date in the image relates to the document from which the interactive map derives its top secret classification, not to the map itself. Source here.

21st January 2014, 630pm, Safra Lecture Theatre, Strand Campus.Please be prompt as seats are first come, first served.

The Research Centre in International Relations in the Department of War Studies will host a panel discussion on revelations relating to mass electronic surveillance and its implications for civil liberties and rights.

Speakers include Sir David Omand (former Head of GCHQ and Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies), Ben Emmerson QC (Mr. Ben Emmerson, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, and Matrix Chambers), Professor Didier Bigo (Department of War Studies and Sciences Po, Paris), and chairing, Professor Vivienne Jabri (Department of War Studies, head of RCIR).

The event is at the Edmond J. Safra Lecture Theatre, King’s College London Strand Campus, Strand, London WC2R 2LS. Directions here. Continue reading