The flaws of the Intelligence agencies were exposed by reports of their collusion in torture of terror suspects. There have been calls for more bureaucratic interference in the Intelligence agencies. Paul Brannon asks is it right that Britain’s Intelligence agencies should face increased pressure over transparency?
No, being the short answer. The Intelligence and Security Committee which oversees the work of Britain’s intelligence agencies says it is “out of date” and should be given greater powers across the whole spectrum of the intelligence gathering process, and the ability to oversee operational matters.
Bureaucracy, ministerial interference and a stringent code of conduct already put shackles on those who work to protect our citizens and our economic, geopolitical, and cultural assets. Adding further restraints, as are put forward in the Intelligence and Security Committee’s (ISC) 2010/11 annual report, where they want involvement in the intelligence agencies’ policies, administration, finances, and on-the-ground operations, will add a further bureaucratic burden to an already under-funded, under-staffed, and pivotal endeavour.
Granted, the intelligence community has not done itself any favours in recent months, and media reports linking the Security Service (MI5) with complicity in the torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, have done little to build public confidence in the necessarily aloof organisations. Nor has its inability in the eyes of many, to provide sufficient explanation of its handling of intelligence leading up to the 7 July attacks in London on 2005, inspired confidence or vindication.
It is argued that an extended remit for the ISC will help to combat issues of accountability and transparency within the intelligence agencies, which is seen as a key factor responsible for reducing the efficiency of the 7/7 inquiry. Lady Justice Heather Hallett’s report concluded that she “did not accept MI5 has made every possible improvement since 7/7” but it is not “right or fair” to say they should have paid more attention to Mohamed Sidique Khan, the ringleader of the terrorists.” There is no evidence that further oversight or scrutiny would have changed the outcome of the attacks on London six years ago.
The intelligence agencies are currently more transparent and more public-facing than they ever have been. Officers from the services have appeared in court, albeit anonymously (which, given the nature of their work is hardly unreasonable), and one need only look at the recruitment campaigns and public-facing websites of the agencies in order to see their modern approach, where possible, to communications.
Accountability-wise, the stringent restrictions imposed by RIPA (2000) and the oversight of the Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary, which underpins all activity, seems logical, fair, and, I would argue, sufficient.
Red-tape, sign-off, and risk aversion are endemic in the public sector, and particularly in the Civil Service. Rather than devolving responsibility to improve efficiency, all too often management are startlingly unwilling to make decisions, and instead concentrate their efforts on maintaining water-tight audit trails; corporate speak for covering your own back. Efficiency is left strictly on a back burner.
If we exacerbate this culture in the intelligence agencies, we will not see a decrease in terrorist attacks—whether you believe the Security Service could have prevented the attacks on 7 July 2005 or not—we will not see an improvement in decision making or accountability, but an obfuscation of purpose. It will take longer and longer to make decisions, efforts may be compromised because of a necessity to over-report to liberal watchdogs, and through a culture of over-caution. None of which is a winning formula for saving lives or protecting our interests. Accountability and transparency are the crux of a democratic society, but stopping another attack on British people and British interest, on British soil is more important than a watchdog’s insistence that it has its teeth sharpened.