UK intelligence chiefs go to Parliament

Not the title of a good, nor bad Enid Blighton book, but what happened yesterday in Parliament. Unprecedented no less. And in the context of the process of avowal yes it was a significant moment. Only twenty years ago there was no statutory footing for these agencies, nor was their presence formally recognised (although they were widely known).

So, there is a huge amount of media commentary this morning about this evidence and I don’t see a utility in merely playing back to these commentators what is already there. So, some off the cuff political science responses:

A technological hinterland: 

Two realities: the first is that every successive generation will say that the technologies and techniques that exist now are superior to those which existed a year ago, or a generation ago. And that must and will always be true. You’d have to run some interesting scenarios to get to a point where ‘it was more sophisticated a generation ago’. And the second is that the level of technology now is so sophisticated and gives such good eyes that – and this is an important caveat – the technology exists to maintain a ‘totalitarian, dictatorial’ system of control over the citizenry. The obstacles? Cash, and political will. Or cash, and the control measures in place. Depends on how you view the essential political/genetic make-up of those engaged in intelligence work, I suppose.

I’m happy to think that these are incontrovertible truths. And thus we must then observe that there is a tension in pacing between the range and scope of technological and technical advances and the legislation and oversight. As a lawmaker I might set up a raft of very precise legal measures (and this is the form of the UK Parliament) but without a general anti-abuse measure, and a question of enforceability, I am always playing catch up to the realities on the ground.

Again, I don’t think this is controversial.

But where it drives me to is a structural point – which again is basic political science – of where you sit determines what you see. For the three men giving evidence to Parliament they know they are decent folk in charge of decent folk doing a decent job. Yes, just like the military, their armaments are formidable but they are accountable and legally proscribed. For the Parliamentarians, they think they’re part of the intelligence community club (they’re not, but they want to be and they’re made to feel welcome etc, but they’re not and that is a problem for oversight… try criticising someone you’re very attracted to.. difficult, isn’t it? Try criticising someone who might make your life very difficult and who has the means to do so? Yeah, you’d rather not). So, tortured syntax aside, Parliamentarians are unlikely to currently be in a place to say ‘we need stronger powers’. They were frankly just pleased the three came to play. And then for those outside the intelligence community, who can see the technical ability and who might assess that it’s a capability which could cause major political problems I think it’s only right that they would want further scrutiny, checks, balances etc. All of these positions are logically consistent with the structural positioning. That’s not controversial, right?

So, why all the tension? Well, because the media – and really we’re talking about the quality press here – feel like they’ve got, via Snowden, the agencies on the run. They think they’ve found them with their knickers down being naughty. The essential line is ‘if you thought they lied in 2002, that’s got nothing on what they’re up to now’ and add in a bit of rendition history too. So, the three have a credibility problem or issue that is partly a product of what they do (we all are wowed and perturbed by intelligence activity), and because the very recent history is one which appears to be cases on the edge of legal acceptability and more recently of activities that diverged from public (and political) understandings of what the agencies were meant to be doing.

I wonder if Parliamentary appearances are aimed at the public, and if they are whether they are the correct forum for instilling public trust?

The other aspect causing tension – but it is unlikely to be on the public mind – is the agencies as political or norm entrepreneurs. The Guardian (yes, them) published material that demonstrated that European agencies were helping each other mitigate the political and legal sphere for these activities: ‘we did this way, you could do x, and y to see yourselves clear’, that kind of thing. This sort of cooperation always goes on across Europe, but often in less sensitive policy areas: no-one really objects to it occuring in labour market relations, or compliance on the number of hours someone is permitted to sit on a tractor. When it applies to the intrusiveness of surveillance across a mass population, it certainly ‘feels’ different.

As someone who has studied this area for just over a decade I am struck by the increased coverage of intelligence, and not just because of Guardian revelations. Unless the media coverage dissipates markedly it feels to me like this divergence of public view and official disposition does have some political dangers attached to it. If the core messaging of ‘we keep you safe’ has lost its traction, and it certainly appears to have, then a new compact or public understanding is required. Is that a fair playing independent set of eyes on this usage or activity? I have wondered for a while how close to the 1% doctrine (with the caveat of limited cash) the UK establishment is. Public pronouncements by people I like and trust on this subject made me wonder whether we’d moved to a 5% doctrine, perhaps 2005 is sufficiently long ag0 that the public are highlighting their own privacy over the security umbrella. But no-one wants a successful attack to prove the point.

Other opinions are available to this wrap-up thought: we British have always been quite comfortable about our security structures doing things to those people over there (and there have been many markers for what we meant by ‘them’), and decidedly dischuffed about them doing things to us. This is the golden rule of Britishness that seems to have been lost by the establishment, or they haven’t messaged that they understand it clearly enough… Reworking that compact, and moving away from a core message of ‘trust us, because we know stuff, and we protect you’ is the key transforming this current political-public impasse.



5 thoughts on “UK intelligence chiefs go to Parliament

  1. Good post!

    Personally I thought the ISC shot itself in the foot with both barrels of a shotgun. What the public wants is reassurance that someone ‘in power’ is holding these people to account. What they saw were a bunch of Parliamentarians spoon feeding answers to the three chiefs. While the ISC might play a very important oversight role, it doesn’t appear to the public to be the sort of body, with teeth, that one might expect of a watchdog. In attempting to confer legitimacy on the three agencies, they gave the impression (to a sympathetic observer like myself) that they had no impulse to put them on the spot, much less take them to task. They might as well have tattooed the ubiquitous “Not fit for purpose” on their foreheads before walking into the room.

    The exception to that is Lord Butler. The gobsmacked look when he asked about offensive cyber capabilities (which everyone with half a brain must know are in existence or at the very least being developed) was extraordinary. It was as if the three were each thinking to themselves “He’s not meant to ask that.” which, in itself, is quite damning.

    On a side note, the biggest surprise for me was that Iain Lobban appeared to be the straightest talking one of the three, and probably the most relateable to joe-public (ie no messing about with management speak and wooly jargon).

    • Rob Dover says:

      Thanks Jack.

      I agree with all of that really. The ISC is – I think – in need of something not necessarily with more teeth, but which resonates with the public. Select Committees in general (and this isn’t an ordinary SC for a variety of reasons) have generated their own stars (Dunwoody was one, and Watson a more recent version) but the ISC has remained immune and yesterday looked like the worst of Parliamentary smugness. The sketch on Guido Fawkes’s blog about this is priceless.

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