The thinking: Why security has to be transparent

Brian Jones argues that faith in intelligence will be hard to restore

This month's green paper on the governance of Britain acknowledges that something has to be done to restore confidence in intelligence. But its suggestion that this might be accomplished by addressing issues of who has formal oversight is not convincing.

The main proposal, that transparency could be achieved by having intelligence overseen by a select committee of parliament, rather than the executive, has merit but is not original.

The foreign affairs committee recommended as much in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq War, but was ignored by the Blair government.

Changing the nature of the intelligence and security committee (ISC) will take time because there is so much highly classified information and national security to protect. But the government thinks some changes cannot wait. On the agenda for immediate scrutiny are how its members are selected and fewer secret meetings.

Two further suggestions hint at lessons learned from Iraq. Debates in parliament on ISC reports could be led by the ISC chair rather than a government minister. This offers the promise of a more measured discussion. It may also point to how reports of future independent inquiries could be handled.

The ISC and the Butler reports on Iraq and WMD intelligence, both of which had merit, suffered more extensive criticism than they deserved because Tony Blair spun them at the despatch box, polarised the chamber and skewed the debate.

Strengthening the secretariat of the ISC, separating it from the Cabinet Office and appointing an independent investigator are all proposals that could reduce the reliance of the committee on those who have a vested interest in what it says. Lord (Tom) King of Bridgwater, the first chair of the ISC, stealthily improved its insight and independence over the years. In 1999 he appointed John Morrison, a retired deputy chief of defence intelligence, as the first, and so far only, investigator. When Morrison displayed too much independence in 2004 by explaining in public why he thought Blair's interpretation of the threat from Iraq had been wrong, he was summarily dismissed and never replaced.

The involvement of former intelligence insiders is essential to overseeing this complex activity. My early years in intelligence analysis were spent learning how much there was to know about the business. I retired 15 years later with much still to learn. A committee of parliamentarians cannot police the community without support from people with experience across the intelligence and security spectrum.

But none of these changes addresses directly the cause of the current deficit in public confidence in the security institutions. If the government continues to insist that it was intelligence mistakes alone that got us into Iraq, then confidence will not recover. Almost everyone is aware of what really happened.

A small coterie in and around No 10 knew that the prime minister needed an intelligence assessment that allowed him to paint a picture of an Iraq bristling with WMDs. That alone won him the public and parliamentary support he needed to go to war. A few top intelligence officials were the facilitators, providing the political spinners with enough of what they needed and the silence of an acquiescent Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) did the rest.

I am sure all concerned thought they were doing the right thing, but the credibility of an intelligence system depends on its immunity from such extraneous factors. The shameful failure of any of those involved to admit culpability has compounded the problem.

So the intelligence machine itself, as well as its oversight, must be made more independent from the influence of the executive. It needs an overhaul beyond the largely irrelevant tinkering that resulted from the Butler review.

In February 2006, Gordon Brown suggested that a single security budget might be the way ahead. If that is still in his mind then real progress might be made. There is little wrong with the independent elements of intelligence, the collectors and analysts, that a little tender loving care will not resolve. But the cogs of the machine do not always mesh efficiently and the intrusion of the interests of their disparate parent departments, the Foreign and Home Offices and the Ministry of Defence, can be a problem.

A single coherent national intelligence organisation, led by an individual head of national intelligence, accountable for performance and budget, could be the solution. Responsibility would no longer be dissipated between departments, agency chiefs and the JIC. The JIC itself might well become redundant. At minimum, the buck-passing would stop and the job of the overseers would be simplified.

Brian Jones is a former branch head in the Defence Intelligence Staff

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Chavez: from hero to tyrant