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Who watches the watchmen?

13 July 2009

1:40 PM

13 July 2009

1:40 PM

In the US, a storm is brewing over Dick Cheney’s alleged role in concealing an intelligence programme from Congress.

Whatever the details of the alleged offence, it raises an interesting question: should oversight of the intelligence community intrinsically be different from other kinds of parliamentary oversight?

Over in the States, Legislators were content to delegate the management of intelligence agencies to the executive until a series of abuses was revealed in the early 1970s, and the House and Senate Committees on Intelligence were set up in 1977. In Britain, however, Parliament has only had scant role in overseeing the intelligence community.


Only nine parliamentarians have the legal authority to pry into the activities of MI6, MI5 and GCHQ and they were only given this right in 1994. They are, however, appointed by, and report to, the Prime Minister on how well the security agencies are performing. The legislators also make a sanitized version its reports available to Parliament and the public.

But the Committee is not a Select Committee of Parliament. It is a committee appointed by the government and housed in the Cabinet Office. Its staff –- clerks and investigators — are drawn from the civil service, not the parliamentary service. In 2008, a motion was defeated in the House to make the staff of the Committee responsible to the Clerk of the House. (The debate, though, is well worth a read.)

This is important, for it means that there is no parliamentary oversight of Britain’s intelligence activities, only oversight by individual parliamentarians. In this, Britain joins the ranks of Russia, Spain and Brazil in having no parliamentary oversight of its spies.

In the past, the arguments against making the Intelligence and Security Committee a genuine parliamentary committee have been many. Can legislators really be trusted? Would the House of Commons be sufficiently safe to hold hearings and keep documents? Some even argue that it would make little difference since it would have to meet in private anyway. But these arguments, in light of past intelligence failures and government mistakes, seem a little thin.

Former Vice-President Cheney’s missteps may have a beneficial outcome if it encourages a new debate about British intelligence oversight at a time when Parliament is considering how to reform itself. The question — Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? — merits a better answer than the one hitherto given.


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