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June 08, 2005

The new Chair of Britain's Intelligence and Security Committee should be a member of the opposition, recommend the Committee's former Investigator and leading independent academic intelligence experts

Posted by Michael Mosbacher

A new Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) is about to be appointed. Both Conservative leader Michael Howard and the Committee's former Chairman, Lord Tom King have called for the ISC's new Chair to be an opposition MP. This call is mirrored by the recommendation - by leading independent academic intelligence experts Professor Anthony Glees and Dr Philip H. J. Davies and the Committee's own former Investigator, John N. L. Morrison - that the Chair of the ISC should always be an opposition MP. This recommendation will appear in the first ever detailed publicly available study of the ISC - The Open Side of Secrecy: Britain's Intelligence and Security Committee - to be published later this year by the Social Affairs Unit.

In the aftermath of the Iraq intelligence fiasco, Glees, Davies and Morrison argue that the work of the ISC has never been more important and that as a unique Committee of parliamentarians, reporting to the Prime Minister and through him to Parliament, the ISC must have sufficient authority to provide full oversight of the current crisis facing British intelligence, and to monitor attempts to improve it.

In order to achieve this, Glees, Davies and Morrison recommend that:

1. The new Chair of the ISC should be a senior member of Her Majesty's Opposition and that procedures should be changed to ensure that this is always the case. The ISC needs to be strong and independent, and to be seen as such: only a Chair who is not of the Governing Party can achieve this.

2. The practice of regarding the chairmanship of the ISC as a consolation prize to a recently dismissed Cabinet Minister should cease with immediate effect. There are suggestions that Paul Murphy, until recently Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, is to succeed Ann Taylor, who has stepped down. If these rumours prove true, the Committee will be seen to be that much less independent.

3. The ISC must show that it knows how to flex its muscles. Since 2001 the ISC has appeared to have an over-cosy relationship with the Government and the secret Agencies. It has shown itself too ready to accept the word of the Agency heads that all is well on their watch. Even so, the final, somewhat limp, report of the previous ISC (published just prior to the 2005 Election) cannot conceal its "concern" over SIS's treatment of the Iraq WMD issue. The ISC has established great powers, including summonsing Ministers. It must use these powers to hold the Agencies fully to account even if that makes the relationship more adversarial.

4. The British public, at present, appears bored with further inquiries into the WMD issue; nevertheless the ISC must re-examine this issue (it hints at this need in its latest Report). In particular it should investigate the role and effectiveness of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and be given full access to JIC assessments so that it can properly judge how the JIC has dealt with particular issues. The ISC must also have the right to investigate the Defence Intelligence Staff in as much detail as it does the Intelligence and Security Agencies.

5. The ISC must operate within the "Ring of Secrecy", but it has been too ready in the past to accept unnecessary Agency deletions to its published Reports. Much has been kept secret which, as the Butler Report has shown, need not be secret at all. Why can the budgets of the individual Agencies not be published? If the ISC can provide a breakdown of Security Service activities in its 2004-05 Annual Report, why are the corresponding GCHQ percentages deleted? If organisational details and senior staff members of US agencies can be publicly identified, why cannot their UK equivalents?

6. The ISC must be appropriately resourced; it currently operates on a shoestring. It should have greater in-house research capabilities and continue to employ its own, independent Investigator, supplemented by a pool of external experts charged with exploring specialist areas.

7. Above all, the ISC must not buckle to pressure from any quarter. The departure of John Morrison, the previous Investigator [and the co-author of The Open Side of Secrecy], under unclear circumstances should be a matter of considerable concern. He was told that as a result of his appearance on Panorama (which made no mention of his work for the ISC) the Agency heads could no longer work with him. Others have suggested that his criticism of the Prime Minister led to pressure from No. 10 for him to be fired. Either way, the ISC was seen to have been coerced into sacking "their" man. The next Committee must be much more robust.

8. The ISC should be the "public conscience" of the British Intelligence Community, providing a fair and constructive assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. But now, as never before, the need for strong, independent and objective oversight is a major national need; only the ISC can provide such oversight and the new Committee must not fail in its duties.

Update 9th June: This forthcoming study - and its recommendation that the ISC's new Chair should be an opposition MP - was today extensively covered by BBC Radio 4's Today programme. John N. L. Morrison was interviewed about why the ISC should be made stronger and more independent and that for this to be achieved it is important that its new Chair is from one of the opposition parties.

Update 21st June: The Guardian today covers the research for The Open Side of Secrecy and interviews co-author Philip H.J. Davies: State Secrets - Research into a government intelligence committee cannot stay secret for long.

Update 12th July: Paul Murphy has now been appointed Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee.

The Open Side of Secrecy: Britain's Intelligence and Security Committee by Anthony Glees, Philip H. J. Davies and John N. L. Morrison will be published this autumn by the Social Affairs Unit. A previous study by Anthony Glees and Philip H. J. Davies, Spinning The Spies: Intelligence, Open Government and the Hutton Inquiry, was published by the Social Affairs Unit in November 2004.

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