SKETCH: Intelligence Committee Sits in Public Should Go Back to Secrecy

The heads of our three great Intelligence organs presented themselves to the Intelligence and Security committee for a grilling (@journalese).

It had never happened before.

It didn’t happen then either.

If the spy bosses said anything to the Committee that they wouldn’t have said in the pub, I didn’t catch it. The sketch writer’s Enigma machine was on the fritz and anything interesting they had to say was hidden in an unbreakable code.

The remarks on Snowden’s leaks had all been made before, and the evidence of harm probably won’t make the front page. It consists of jihadists looking for different ways to communicate.

Was it the first time GCHQ had admitted to pulling millions of emails out of the internet? If so, Iain Lobban insisted it was all perfectly legal. They only read the ones the ones that have useful intelligence in them (I’m wilfully distorting).

Sir Malcolm Rifkind asked one of those duff questions: “Why weren’t the public entitled to know about the mass surveillance system?”

“I don’t think secret means sinister,” the answer came from the head of GCHQ. “Strange to say we have nothing to hide, given we operate within a ring of secrecy.”

That little cat’s cradle deserved untangling but it was left where it lay.

“Can you guarantee your agency is beyond reproach?” Hazel Blears asked. Andrew Parker said (eventually): “Yes.”

Absurd question, meaningless answer.

Paul Goggins wondered aloud: “Is there a risk you’ll be spread too thinly and you’ll miss things?”

That didn’t deserve an answer at all.

There was much talk of compliance. The legal framework. The Code. The Human Rights Act. RIPA.

Tom Watson tweeted “Interpreting S.16 of RIPA requires unravelling a triple-nested inversion of meanings across six cross-referenced sub-sections.” It is amazing anything ever gets done.

There was a serving major on the radio some time ago. He defined the purpose of the army. It was “to hunt down Her Majesty’s enemies and kill them.”

You might not agree with him but at least you could understand him.

But take Sir Ming Campbell’s style as the Committee’s template: “Do I take it that North Korea is a country of concern and co-operative relationships with other countries are . . . (Etc etc)”

“You choose your words with care,” Sawyers said admiringly.

So, this was an old-style committee hearing. And not in a good way.

The MPs read their questions, the questions were feeble and rarely followed up, the witnesses never said anything they hadn’t wanted to and Sir Malcolm presided over it all with a voice last heard in a Pathe News Pictorial circa 1956.




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