As published in The Guardian:
Tory MP adds to calls for improved oversight of UK intelligence services
Rory Stewart says intelligence and security committee should always be chaired by member of opposition
Rory Stewart: ‘You are never going to have a government backbencher chairing a committee that is going to criticise the government properly.’ Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian
Parliament’s intelligence and security committee (ISC) should always be chaired by a member of the opposition to ensure its independence and be freely elected by MPs, the Conservative MP Rory Stewart said on Monday night at a debate aimed at fostering public discussion about mass surveillance.
“You are never going to have a government backbencher chairing a committee that is going to criticise the government properly,” Stewart said.
His remarks come days before his Tory colleague Sir Malcolm Rifkind chairs an ISC hearing at which the heads of Britain’s intelligence services will give evidence as part of an inquiry into oversight of the UK spying agencies, following concern about the scale of mass surveillance.
Stewart, a member of the foreign affairs committee, was among a number of MPs, campaigners and media professionals taking part in Monday night’s debate, Mass Surveillance, which was conceived by another Conservative backbencher, David Davis, and the journalist Henry Porter with the added aim of supporting the Guardian at a time when the paper has come under pressure over its reporting of leaks by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Davis expressed strong support for the role played by Snowden, the computer analyst behind the leaked National Security Agency documents that led to revelations about US surveillance on phone and internet communications. He was also supportive of the possibility the American could swap asylum in Russia for a new refuge in western Europe.
“The only protection for us all in this sort of area is actually whistleblowers,” said Davis. “It’s the only thing that makes these sorts of organisations behave properly. If whistleblowers can look forward to a life in Germany rather than a life in Moscow, I think that would improve things for everybody.”
The idea was backed by other speakers, including a German Greenparty MP, Konstantin Von Notz, and Wolfgang Büchner, editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel, who also said that he was shocked by a recent intervention from David Cameron in which the prime minister singled out the Guardian and said that it would be “very difficult” not to take action against newspapers that continue to publish “damaging” security leaks.
Büchner added: “I could not believe it. As a German citizen, if you look over at these things you really are puzzled that this is possible in the United Kingdom. I am certainly not here to tell you about democracy, but it was Germany that imported those values, freedom of speech, of opinion, from you, the US and from France. And now we look at the prime minister of a country, a motherland of democracy, who is threatening a newspaper.”
The debate, at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London, also heard from Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, who said that those who suggested the Snowden leaks was the biggest disaster to hit western intelligence services in the last 100 years were correct. “But what stopped it from being a catastrophe was that Edward Snowden didn’t do what he might have done, which is to act as a spy or to put it straight on to the internet,” he added.
“The good luck of the security services is that he gave it to a newspaper. No one in Westminster or Congress has really asked how this happened, how was it that GCHQ agreed to these arrangements by which 850,000 people could peer into the ‘wiki-sight’ of GCHQ, so that a 29-year-old who didn’t even work for the government, living in Hawaii, could have access to that. Who has resigned over that? Who has been asked a single question? Will the ISC ask that on Thursday when they have the security chiefs in front of them?” Julian Huppert, a Liberal Democrat MP, said that the intelligence services should welcome a debate about what their rules are, but added that there were major problems surrounding how informed members of the public and parliament were.
“Most members of parliament simply do not understand what the issues are – what is data versus metadata for example. People don’t realise, for example, how important it is for our financial stability. If you start breaking encryption and putting backdoors in then that means that any financial transaction online could be suspect or could be hacked. That is incredibly dangerous.”
The event also heard a message of support from Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, who said: “This is a time of great danger for the freedom of the press in the UK. It is therefore more important than ever for everyone to stand up and say that the right of a news organization to publish is a fundamental and basic human right.”
He suggested a new law on press regulation, in which “parliament shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”.
Jo Glanville, the chief executive officer of English PEN, said that keeping the country safe does not entitle the government or the intelligence services to act without regard to our human rights.
“They are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to conduct targeted surveillance with effective oversight while according respect to all our rights.
“National security should not be a blanket term for anything that might be embarrassing for the state. We have a very broad definition of national security in this country – that goes way beyond the international definition of the term. Our courts have described it as ‘protean’ – and this means that our intelligence services have an undefined remit to intercept communications – it doesn’t even have to be a crime.”
Nick Pickles, the director of the civil liberties and privacy campaign group, Big Brother Watch, listed a number of things which he said were still secret: the budget of the ISC, the number of warrants read by the Interception of Communications Commissioner, and the number of [surveillance] warrants requested by MI5.
“Would any of these numbers point to massive vulnerabilities in Britain’s national security,” he asked.
“No, they would inform the public about what is going on. We cannot allow this secret to continue. Thursday could be an enlightened moment of rigorous oversight, or it could be proof of the football maxim that attack is the best form of defence and we may well see the three intelligence heads trying to attack Edward Snowden and the Guardian rather than having to defend their own actions.”