The Intelligence and Security Committee: the government’s white-washing body of choice

The ISC has completely missed the major scandals of the past decade: this “oversight” committee only hears about the activity of those it oversees via the newspapers.

Abdel Hakim Belhaj, whose abduction in 2004 with the help of MI6 came to light after the fall of Gaddafi in Libya. Photo: Getty.

It is hardly surprising that parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee – which consists of MPs and peers hand-picked by the Prime Minister – is fast becoming the Government’s white-washing body of choice. Despite its purported role in providing scrutiny and oversight of the intelligence services, it is in fact far more often a cheerleader than a watchdog.

Worse still, it has completely missed the major scandals of the past decade, which it was meant to guard against: a full three years after UK agents were intimately involved in the 2004 kidnap and ‘rendition’ to torture of Gaddafi opponents – pregnant wives and young children included – the ISC gave our spies a clean bill of health. There is “no evidence that the UK Agencies were complicit in any ‘Extraordinary Rendition’ operations,” they wrote happily in 2007 – without any apparent awareness that three years previously, MI6’s Sir Mark Allen had cheerfully congratulated Gaddafi’s spy chief on the arrival of the “air cargo” – Mr Belhadj and his wife Fatima Boudchar – and stressed that the intelligence that got them there “was British.”

More recently, a member of the ISC was forced to admit in Parliament that the Committee only examined the issue of Prism – GCHQ’s mass surveillance programme – “after the Guardian revelations.”

As if it wasn’t bad enough that this ‘oversight’ committee only hears about the activity of those it oversees via the newspapers, it has also proved to be hopelessly prone to a starry-eyed attitude towards our security agencies. As a result of his habit of acting in the press more as a spokesman for the agencies than as their watchdog, ISC Chair Sir Malcolm Rifkind has come in for criticism from some unexpected quarters. Former Conservative Defence Secretary and ISC Chair, Lord King, described his decision to swiftly endorse the work of GCHQ after the Snowden revelations as “unfortunate” while ex-MI5 chief Stella Rimington has said “I’m not sure that Malcolm Rifkind going on the telly and saying we’ve scrutinised all this and it’s all OK, is enough.”

So this week’s U-turn by the Government, which has now abandoned its commitment to an independent, judge-led inquiry into UK complicity in torture in favour of ‘inquiry-lite’ conducted by the ISC, will perhaps come as no surprise to the cynical. This is a committee which can be relied upon to be deferential to the point of blindness. One needs only look at their recent much-hyped “grilling” of the heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ – a damp squib which was memorably described as a “total pantomime” by one Tory MP after it emerged that all three security chiefs were provided the questions in advance.

This pattern of restricting oversight of the security services to the warm embraces of the ISC is also borne out by the Home Secretary’s recent veto of a request by the Home Affairs Committee to question MI5 boss Andrew Parker. It also comes in the same week as Sir David Omand, ex GCHQ boss, says that spy chiefs should not answer to parliament.

So we should not expect much from the ISC’s inquiry, should it materialise. Which is a shame, as I did expect more from Mr Cameron’s political self-interest.  In July 2010, he made a personal pledge to hold an “independent Inquiry, led by a judge,” to “look at whether Britain was implicated in the improper treatment of detainees”. He was not alone – Foreign Secretary William Hague, Cabinet Office Minister Ken Clarke and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg all made the same pledge. That pledge, made to the public and to Parliament, now lies in tatters. There is no excuse – the circumstances which the Government cited in shelving the judge-led detainee inquiry are still the same. If anything, the findings of Sir Peter Gibson’s report, published today, show that the demand for real accountability of our security services has grown even greater.

Clare Algar is Executive Director of Reprieve, a not-for-profit organisation which fights for the rights of prisoners.