Spies keep us safe, so trust them to do their work in secret

No, we don’t have exploding pens. PA Wire

It was something of a landmark in parliament, as the heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ all appeared in a public, televised session of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). It was historic not because they appeared before the committee – which happens routinely – but because they did so in public. So, did the event have any real value, or was it a mere PR stunt?

The great conundrum about intelligence gathering, especially signals intelligence (known as SIGINT), is that the moment you give your adversary information about how you obtain your intelligence they will begin to adapt their systems and behaviours to counter your efforts.

The session revealed that there exists hard evidence of terrorist and criminal organisations discussing the information leaked by Edward Snowden and how they should adapt in the light of its revelations. The head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, said Britain’s enemies would be “rubbing their hands with glee” at Snowden’s leaks. He said:

The leaks from Snowden have been very damaging. They have put our operations at risk. It is clear that our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee, al-Qaida is lapping it up and national security has suffered as a consequence.

Not surprisingly, committee members asked for specific examples to support this assertion – and again, they ran straight back into the problem of giving away too much detail in public.

What the public session did show when answering these questions was that the intelligence chiefs were (as they always have been) quite willing to discuss in detail the evidence they had with the committee – just not in public. My hope is that people watching the session saw – and believed – that this detailed evidence really does exist. My fear is that for those who distrust the “establishment”, no amount of detail would be sufficient.

Matters of trust

Kim Howells, a former chair of the ISC, put it rather well this morning when he said that intelligence services must by necessity operate covertly and that their oversight has to be ceded to a group who can be trusted to represent the people.

ISC must be trusted: Kim Howells: PA Wire

In the UK there is not just the ISC, but also accountability via ministers to parliament, as well as two commissioners – one for intelligence and one for interception. Compared to many other countries around the world, that is considerable oversight indeed.

The director of MI5, Andrew Parker, made two particularly interesting points about the laws under which his organisation operates. He emphasised that part of the provenance of the relevant laws is the right to privacy enshrined in various human rights legislation. He also pointed out that when offered more powers in the past, the intelligence services had considered it inappropriate and were happy to continue to operate within the existing legal framework.

These points were added to by Sir Iain Lobban of GCHQ, who said that the motivation of his staff was to protect the people of the UK, not to snoop, and that if they were asked to simply snoop they would “leave the building”.

At face value, the appearance by Britain’s spy chiefs proved that our intelligence services are headed by public servants who see it as their duty to do as parliament legislates. The trouble is that, unless you are an insider, you have to trust that those conducting the oversight will do their job properly.

Intelligence compromised

Organisations such as Liberty have already questioned whether the ISC is sufficiently probing, describing it as a “watchdog that doesn’t bark in the night”. They have alleged that the committee was misled with regard to matters such as the UK’s involvement in the torture of overseas prisoners. However, it is very easy to make such allegations: such organisations need far less evidence to cast such aspirations than they demand from the intelligence services to refute them.

Many commentators have said that the fact that this hearing was going ahead was proof that Snowden had been right to leak his stash of classified documents. Those commentators fail to mention that this appearance, or something like it, has been discussed in parliament for over a year and it was in fact agreed upon before anyone had ever heard of Edward Snowden.

As a previous head of GCHQ revealed on the BBC News channel, the intelligence services themselves have long argued that it would be good for the public to better understand what they do – at least within what is possible without jeopardising their operations.

Edward Snowden. Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, what Snowden and those publishing the documents he has passed them have principally achieved has been to make the already difficult work of the intelligence services significantly harder.

What was made very clear in the hearing was that the intelligence services have an enormous hayfield within which to hunt for needles. The internet offers boundless opportunities for terrorists and criminals to communicate and plan and to spread propaganda, securely and anonymously. The intelligence services therefore have no choice but to sift through the vast quantities of information passing across the internet. This does not mean they have the time or inclination to examine every piece of hay; they have developed techniques that allow them to detect the needles and focus on those. And no, of course they aren’t going to reveal how they do that – otherwise the needles would find ways to blend in even more.

I hope that those who watched the parliamentary committee saw that it doesn’t take the sensationalist revelations of the Snowden affair to conduct a mature debate about how the intelligence agencies operate. More importantly, I hope the hearing demonstrated how such services can be held to account in a democratic society.

Parliamentary appearances can bolster public confidence, and show that these agencies are being held to account. In the end, this is about whether we trust the watchers and those who watch the watchers on our behalf. People should question the oversight and ensure that it is sufficient, and this process of holding it to account in public is what will build the trust we need.