UK MPs debate oversight of the security services

by Naomi Colvin

Earlier today, MPs took part in a three hour debate on oversight of the security services. Video of today’s three hour debate is now available here, and it’s well worth viewing:

31.10.13 Westminster Hall debate on oversight of the security services

Of particular note are the exchanges between members of the Intellifenge and Security Committee (ISC) and Parliamentary colleagues, which reveal that no scrutiny of Prism or Tempora took place in that committee before Edward Snowden’s disclosures put the existence of those programmes into the public domain. It is not at all clear that members of the committee knew what GCHQ was up to until the Guardian drew their attention to it.

A full transcript of the debate should be available soon (here) and I’ll highlight some of the key passages when it is.

Update (4/11)

I promised to identify the sections of the debate which tackled the degree of information open to the ISC, particularly about the PRISM and Tempora programmes. The first came about in a question from Tom Watson to George Howarth, a member of the ISC:

Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab):

Let me demonstrate that by reference to the issue that the hon. Gentleman has talked about at some length, and legitimately so. I am talking about the Prism programme—what the UK’s involvement in it was and so on. Not once during his speech, unless I missed it, did he refer to the fact that the Intelligence and Security Committee, which he considers to be inadequate, has already looked at the Prism programme and what our own agencies’, and particularly GCHQ’s, involvement in and knowledge of that was. We issued a statement—an interim statement, I might add—in July. In the course of that statement, which has not been referred to so far, we arrived at some important conclusions. The first one was:

“It has been alleged that GCHQ circumvented UK law by using the NSA’s PRISM programme to access the content of private communications. From the evidence we have seen, we have concluded that this is unfounded.”

For obvious reasons, it is impossible for me to go into detail about all the evidence that we were able to look at, but we did look in detail at very important pieces of information and we were able also to look at what authorisations were involved in the process of accessing the information, particularly the communications within it. The law has not been broken.

Mr Watson: I am reassured by my right hon. Friend’s thoroughness in the investigation. Was July the first time that the Committee had examined Prism, and was that after the Guardian revelations? [Laughter.]

Mr Howarth: It was after the Guardian revelations. The hon. Member for Cambridge seems to think that that is funny. Actually, he would still be sitting here today if we had not gone and looked at this matter after the allegations emerged. He would be accusing us of being inadequate in our responsibilities.

So, the ISC did not examine GCHQ’s involvement in PRISM before information about the programme’s existence reached the public domain. That could mean that the committee didn’t know about it, or knew about it and chose not to concern itself with it. George Howarth was pressed on the issue of whether the ISC knew about the programme by Rory Stewart – and his answer is incredibly evasive.

Rory Stewart: Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify why the Committee did not look into Prism before The Guardian published its allegations?

Mr Howarth: Let me answer the hon. Gentleman very carefully; I hope that he will forgive me for being none too specific in my answer. Part of our responsibility, which did not just emerge after the revelations about Prism, is to look at what the agencies do, what their capacities are and how they use those capacities. It is a continuous process. We have in the head of GCHQ. We take evidence. We probe what it is doing and what it is capable of doing. Therefore, it is not that we did not have any concerns or any interest in what GCHQ was capable of. That is an ongoing process, but inevitably, when something new emerges, it is appropriate that, as a Committee, we look into it.

I have answered the hon. Gentleman’s question perhaps not as accurately as he would have liked, but—I am not being evasive when I say this—if I went any further, I would be going into detail that at this stage I do not think is relevant.

The issue was later put to the chair of the committee, Sir Michael Rifkind, who refused to answer the question:

Mr Meacher: Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain why the Committee did not find out about the Tempora programme when it began to operate?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: The right hon. Gentleman does not have the faintest idea whether the Committee was aware of programmes of any kind. We are given classified information, and the whole point of an independent Committee having access to top secret information, whatever that is, is that we do not announce what such information is. If he can devise a system whereby secret information can be made available to all law-abiding British citizens, without its being simultaneously made available to the rest of the world, I am interested in hearing about it, but I do not think that he is likely to meet that requirement.

Also of note was the question put by Julian Huppert to the Under-Secretary of State James Brokenshire – but answered by Michael Rifkind:

Dr Huppert: The Minister makes the extremely good point that it is “past operations” that can be looked at, and there are constraints on what the ISC can look at; it does not have a completely free rein on operational matters. What happens if an operation lasts for many, many years? At what stage is there any sort of scrutiny of that?

James Brokenshire: To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he took part in the consideration of the Justice and Security Act 2013, although he did not make then a number of the points that he has made this afternoon. However, we need to be very careful to ensure that scrutiny does not seek to cut across into direct, ongoing operational activity. I am quite sure that, given the robustness of the new powers that the ISC itself will hold, that consideration is very much in the forefront of the minds of the Committee members.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: In response to the perfectly reasonable issue raised by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), I must say that this point was seized on by the ISC itself. We have completed discussions with the Government, the results of which will appear in a memorandum of understanding that will be published and include details of how these matters will be dealt with. That will ensure that that consideration cannot be used as an improper way of preventing the ISC from obtaining access to operations that—by any normal, common-sense approach—could be considered as completed.

Finally, as a reminder of the quality of rhetoric that tends to prevail when issues are not subjected to proper scrutiny:

Mr Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): If in the last few weeks, we had lost a city to nuclear terrorism or there had been a gigantic mass casualty, I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman’s constituents would see Edward Snowden as a trendy, cool whistleblower or as a traitor.

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