Britain’s Interrogation of Spy Agencies About Domestic Surveillance Is a Joke

How you look at things.
Nov. 7 2013 3:46 PM

The Patient English

The British Parliament’s interrogation of spy agencies about domestic surveillance is a joke.

Andrew Parker, John Sawers, Iain Lobban
Andrew Parker of MI5, John Sawers of MI6, and Iain Lobban of GCHQ testifying before the Intelligence and Security Committee, Nov. 7, 2013.

Video still by UK Parliament via Reuters

In the months since Edward Snowden exposed mass surveillance by the National Security Agency, the U.S. Congress has grilled the agency, its overseers, and its intelligence-community partners in several open hearings. The British Parliament, however, has conducted no such interrogations, despite Snowden’s revelations of similar surveillance by the United Kingdom. Today, the chiefs of Britain’s top three intelligence agencies—MI5, MI6, and GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), testified together publicly for the first time before the parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. The session was a joke.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

I expected better. The Brits, after all, are the people who gave us Question Time, a daily ritual in which members of Parliament interrogate government ministers. Our public-affairs TV network, C-SPAN, treats this as a model of transparency, accountability, and lively debate. But in security matters, the U.K. has a long way to go. When the spy chiefs were asked in today’s committee session about domestic surveillance, they gave the same pat answers U.S. intelligence officials tried to peddle in early post-Snowden congressional hearings. They alluded to “safeguards,” “rigorous oversight,” and “internal rules.” The committee’s members failed to press for evidence or clarification.

The committee’s chairman, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, asked the spymasters why they had to monitor the entire public in order to catch evildoers. Sir Iain Lobban, the director of GCHQ, assured Rifkind that the government’s data harvesters don’t exceed what’s necessary and proper, since “there are very specific legal thresholds,” and “I don’t employ the type of people who would” spy on innocent civilians. “My people are motivated by saving lives,” Lobban sniffed.

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In a congressional hearing, this is the kind of assertion that prompts somebody on the panel to ask for details. What legal thresholds? What internal rules? Instead, Rifkind thanked Lobban: “You’ve given a very full response.”

Ten minutes later, Rifkind asked Andrew Parker, the director general of MI5, for “specific examples” of damage done to British intelligence by the disclosure of surveillance methods. Parker offered to give the committee examples in closed session, but he assured Rifkind that thanks to GCHQ’s data collection, “there are real instances” of the government “finding terrorist plots that we would not otherwise find that we’re then able to thwart, which leads to lives being saved.” Again, this is the kind of assertion that often unravels under scrutiny in congressional hearings. But in the British forum, it went unchallenged.

Lobban claimed to have solid evidence. “What we have seen, over the last five months, is near daily discussion among some of our targets” showing damage from recent surveillance disclosures, he told the committee.

We’ve seen terrorist groups in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere in South Asia discussing the revelations in specific terms, in terms of the communications packages that they use, the communications packages that they wish to move to. … We have actually seen chat around specific terrorist groups, including close to home, discussing how to avoid what they now perceive to be vulnerable communications methods, or to how to select communications which they now perceive not to be exploitable.

At this point in an American hearing, you’d expect some congressman to ask the witness how we have such good intel on this “chat” if the bad guys have learned how to evade our surveillance. But nobody on the British panel raised that question.

Why was the interrogation so lame? I can imagine several reasons. The British spy agencies are only supporting actors in the surveillance story. The NSA is the main target, so Congress feels pressure to do something. Libertarianism and distrust of government are also less prevalent in the United Kingdom. One member of the British committee told the spy chiefs that in national polls, “about 60 percent of the public either think that you’ve got the right amount of powers, or indeed, some members of the public think you need more powers.” In addition, the Brits have a stronger faith in the decency of public servants.  When NSA officials tell Congress that their employees are good people, we nod but persist. We want to know what laws and mechanisms are in place to prevent abuse.

Two other things about the hearing struck me as odd. One was this comment from Parker, the MI5 boss: “There have been times over the years when successive governments have offered my service greater powers and greater measures. And we’ve said they’re disproportionate and turned away from them.”