To call it a grilling would be unfair to fried fish. It was a soft-centre velvet-glove exchange between decent establishment chaps which only confirmed just how feeble and inadequate the present system of so-called oversight of the security services really is. As spy chiefs came before parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), it is incredible that not once in the whole 90-minute encounter was the word Tempora mentioned. Even though the hoovering up of unimaginable amounts of internet traffic from the transatlantic under-sea cables by GCHQ is at the heart of public concerns about the biggest potential breach in personal privacy in history.
Worse, none of the three heads of MI5, MI6 or GCHQ showed any awareness that the public are right to be worried about how such a powerful capability might be used, or that the deployment of such a capacity beyond the scope of any existing law might show that the spymasters were simply out of control. Why were neither the ISC nor the cabinet nor the National Security Council never let into the secret about Tempora, which we would still know nothing about were it not for Snowden’s revelations? But the ISC stooges never even asked this!
Almost everything else of importance was also left unanswered. Instead of loudly blaming the Guardian and other media, why didn’t the three security chiefs turn their ire on the fact that no less than 850,000 US employees and contractors had access to the secret material at the heart of GCHQ operations, as leaked by Snowden – a security lapse of colossal proportions which meant that sooner or later the material was bound to find its way into the public domain? Has this lapse been closed, and if so, by what means and by how much?
But the stooges didn’t pry into that either. We now know that the American NSA hacked into Merkel’s mobile phone over at least the last ten years, and that of 35 other heads of governments; did British intelligence receive any of these transcripts? But the ISC chums were mum on that too. Nor were the three chiefs asked about their deliberate weakening of internet encryption, with hugely valuable benefits to terrorists and criminals, but a disaster for citizens and businesses. Parker, Lobban and Sawers did finally, and distinctly reluctantly, admit that greater transparency was needed, though they singularly failed to indicate what they would do to achieve it.
The idea that such pussyfooting around in front of the cameras constitutes scrutiny is risible. Until a proper committee of inquiry is set up that is external and independent, chaired by a senior judge, and with membership and terms of reference approved by parliament (not simply appointed by the PM), the public unrest about Britain’s security services operating out of control will not subside.