GCHQ’s “light oversight regime” as situation comedy

by Naomi Colvin

One of the more memorable quotes to have been featured in the Snowden reporting to date for me is the unnamed senior legal official from GCHQ’s briefing note that “We have a light oversight regime compared with the US”.

For an illustration of how this works, I highly recommend reading Intelligence Services Commissioner Sir Mark Waller’s evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee from last Tuesday. The Committee had to fight to get Waller to appear before it and, seeing what transpired, you can understand why. All the comparisons to Yes, Minister are entirely justified (although, as you may gather from his evidence, Mark Waller is in fact a retired senior judge rather than a career mandarin).

A representative sample:

Sir Mark Waller: …I just thought it was absolutely wrong to publish my report without going down to GCHQ in order to see whether there was anything in the allegation that was being made [in the Snowden reporting]. The allegation that was being made at that time was that GCHQ were taking no notice of UK law. They were doing it all through America and they were behaving unlawfully.

Chair: You went down to GCHQ.

Sir Mark Waller: Yes.

Chair: You went to see who there?

Sir Mark Waller: I saw the second head of the agency, in fact.

Chair: How did you satisfy yourself? It seems, from your comment, that what you did was you had a discussion with them, you heard what they had to say and you have accepted what they had to say.

Sir Mark Waller: Certainly.

Chair: Is that it?

Sir Mark Waller: Certainly.

Chair: Just a discussion?

Sir Mark Waller: Certainly.

Chair: Nothing else?

Sir Mark Waller: Certainly.

Chair: That is the way you were satisfied that there was no circumventing on UK law. You went to see them. You sat round a table. You had a discussion-

Sir Mark Waller: You have to remember that I had done a year and a half’s inspection. I have a very good idea as to what the ethos of this agency is.

Chair: Of course.

Sir Mark Waller: They know perfectly well that they have to make out their case and the legality of their cases and so on and I have absolutely, clearly, accepted that-

Chair: Of course. How many times have you visited GCHQ in the three years and two months that you have been the Commissioner?

Sir Mark Waller: Three years and two months. Well, again, each visit in 2012 is in the report. Effectively, I do two inspections a year.

Chair: So you have been about six times?

Sir Mark Waller: Yes.

Chair: Six times in three years?

Sir Mark Waller: Yes.