Our spooks still depend on a cloak of secrecy
Britain’s intelligence agencies are more open than
ever, but there has to be a limit
The secrecy depicted in 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' still plays
its part in modern espionage
  by Philip Johnston, and published: 7:57PM GMT 04 Nov 2013

Exactly 20 years ago this month, I attended the first on-the-record press conference given by the heads of MI6 and GCHQ. This was quite a moment. Until 1989, the existence of these organisations was not even officially acknowledged; yet here were Sir Colin McColl of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and Sir John Adye, chief of the even more hush-hush eavesdropping station at Cheltenham, prepared to answer questions about what they did.

Well, up to a point. The purpose of the gathering at the Foreign Office was to demonstrate a commitment to greater openness, as the Major government published legislation placing the agencies on a statutory footing for the first time and establishing a committee of parliamentarians to oversee their activities.
No photographs or cameras were allowed; and needless to say, any questions about their activities were more often than not met with a polite “no comment”. So when the man from the Financial Times raised his hand towards the end, we fully expected some kind of inquiry about the impact of spying on the FTSE-100 index, which would be firmly rebuffed.
“Can I ask Sir Colin two questions?” he said. “Is he really known as C; and does he use green ink?” Sir Colin concluded that these closely guarded state secrets could no longer be protected and confirmed that both were, indeed, true. The tradition has been kept since the first head of MI6, Sir George Mansfield Smith-Cumming.
It is hard to believe that this was 1993, still less that most people had never heard of Sir Colin until he was “outed” in the Commons just months earlier by the prime minister. Since then, the intelligence agencies have been dragged gradually into the light of public scrutiny and political accountability. MI5 has been the most open, setting up a website (now emulated by the others) and with its directors-general usually making a speech or two a year – as Andrew Parker did recently.
This painfully slow process is about to take a significant step forward. On Thursday, the three current heads of our intelligence agencies will appear together in public for the first time before the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) – the very body over whose creation Sir Colin helped to preside all those years ago.
This session is particularly timely. Not since Peter Wright revealed in Spycatcher how MI5 had “bugged and burgled its way around London” has the reputation of the secret services been under such sustained scrutiny. Now, we are led to believe – courtesy of the leaks from Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor – that they are up to their old tricks again, with GCHQ in particular using mass surveillance techniques to snoop on everyone.
Sir Iain Lobban, head of the Cheltenham station, will probably get the toughest questions, since it is his agency in the line of fire. Yet he has already gone public about this before, in a BBC interview. “Can we listen to everything? No we can’t,” he said. “Do we try to listen to everything? No we don’t. There’s a vast amount of communication out there. Our approach is to be as surgical as possible. So we’re looking for that tiny proportion of communications globally which is of interest to us.”
Should we be worried? We know that GCHQ’s hi-tech doughnut-shaped listening station is stuffed full of supercomputers used for spying: what else are they for? The issue that should concern us is the extent to which this is properly monitored. For all the brouhaha generated by the Snowden leaks, the fact remains that the secret services are subject to far greater oversight than they were 20 years ago. Their protocols are taken extremely seriously and are enforced by a battery of lawyers; those who refuse to accept that this is so either don’t know what is going on or wilfully disregard it. Nor is the so-called revelation that we and the Americans spy on other EU leaders a shock – either to them or to us.
This does not mean that the spooks should be left to get up to anything they want; for example, the disclosures of backdoor deals with web companies for access to emails and internet accounts should be watched by all who fret about civil liberties. But that, surely, is where Parliament comes in.
Until now, the ISC has essentially been the creature of Downing Street, derided by critics as the poodle of agency chiefs adept at pulling the wool over the eyes of credulous politicians, who are too often in thrall to the glamorous world of the spies. Now, however, it is a properly instituted parliamentary body, one able to puncture such impressions by getting the agency chiefs to talk publicly about the work they do on the country’s behalf.
There will, of course, be no questions about specific operations – and, if any are asked, no answers. But the ISC is already given this information in camera, and that is as it should be. The point that Sir Colin made at that press conference 20 years ago still holds good: “Secrecy is our most precious asset,” he said. “People risk their lives and their jobs for us often because they believe the SIS is a secret service.” As we have seen in the years since, it is possible to be more open without compromising security, and secrecy should never be used to cover up failure. But it remains fundamental to what the intelligence agencies do. Those who deny this, or seek to undermine it, do not have this country’s best interests at heart.
Do GCHQ still try recruiting from academia?
Or have they shelved the Politburo's intellectual bag-carriers?
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