The recently overhauled Intelligence and Security Committee appears to have failed its first major test. For some years I, and other critics, have been saying that, as the watchdog of the intelligence services, it is both toothless and blind. Not only did the Committee have little understanding of the world that it was supposed to be monitoring, but it also lacked the necessary powers to investigate that world.
Some of those criticisms were answered when the Committee was recently given increased powers including the use of a specialist investigator. This was something that the Committee originally had, but which was withdrawn when it proved a little too effective for the services’ liking. Sadly, although the Committee now has some of the resources it needs, it still seems to lack the necessary understanding to make effective use of those new tools.
The first indication of this is the imminent publication of the Committee’s investigation into events surrounding the brutal murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby. Apparently, and as expected, the Committee will exonerate the intelligence services from any culpability. But it has now become clear that the Committee did not consider evidence from key witnesses, in particular regarding the allegation that constant pestering and threats from the intelligence services, were, in part, responsible for the radicalisation of the murderer. This might not appear to be so important, but bearing in mind the story printed below concerning Jamal Osman together with other stories elsewhere, there is a body of evidence that the services are being heavy handed in their recruitment approaches and that this might be having an adverse effect in the communities where they work. This is surely a matter for the Committee to consider as, if true, it has considerable implications for future security and intelligence work.
The sort of harrassment to which Osman and others have been subjected, seems so crass that it is scarcely believable – reminiscent in some ways of the tactics of certain police forces in the 1960s when they were recruiting criminal informants (“work for us or it will be trouble for you, sonny” etc). After scandals such as that of the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad in the 1970s, the police successfully adapted their agent handling techniques which became far more effective. I know that because I have been involved in it. The corresponding problem with the intelligence services is, as ever, that blanket secrecy leads to an invulnerability to outside scrutiny and poor practices are allowed to continue unchecked. That is why I suspect that these abuses are continuing. The evidence is not conclusive, but it is at least worthy of someone’s consideration.
With such gaping holes in what should have been a fairly straightforward investigation, the omens for the Committee’s far more wide-ranging Privacy and Security Inquiry, caused in no small part by the Snowden revelations, do not look promising. The ISC still seems to have two key problems: the first is lack of understanding of how the intelligence services operate. In the past this was countered to a certain extent by Committee members such as Meta Ramsay who had experience of the intelligence world. As these people were also political creatures, this was not a perfect solution, but it did help. Sadly the Committee no longer has this expertise. The second problem is that although the Committee now has powers to investigate, its chief investigator is a retired senior police officer, not someone with an intelligence background. The methods and culture of the police world are as different from those of the intelligence world as white knight from black bishop. I suspect that he is blundering in the dark. Cynics will no doubt comment that this is the very reason he was chosen for the job without objection from any of the services.
The Committee, created in 1994, remains a work in progress. One reform has been made, but it appears that further reforms are needed.