Spy Watchdog Has Become Mouthpiece for Intelligence Agencies, say Civil Liberties Groups

Photo: Tim Ireland/PA
Photo: Tim Ireland/PA

Civil liberties groups have called for reform of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), the watchdog for the security services, after they were smeared as having suggested that terrorism is a price worth paying for freedom.

They accuse the ISC of being a “mouthpiece” for the intelligence services, echoing comments by David Davis MP, who helped to set up the Committee, that it has become “taken in” by the glamour of the security agencies.

Representatives from civil rights groups Big Brother Watch, Liberty, Justice and Rights Watch UK were invited to give evidence to the Intelligence and Security Committee last October on whether mass personal data collection was necessary and desirable to prevent terrorist atrocities from occurring.

The Times has splashed an excerpt from that evidence session over its front page today, under the headline “Terrorism is a price worth paying, says liberty lobby”.  It alleges that:

“an evidence session last October recorded Ms Blears asking Isabella Sankey, the director of policy for Liberty, whether she would change her mind if there were evidence showing that bulk data collection had helped to prevent terrorist plots. Ms Sankey was quoted as saying: “No.”

“She was asked by a second committee member whether “you believe so strongly that bulk interception is unacceptable in a free society that you would say that was a price we should be willing to pay?” Ms Sankey was quoted as responding: “Yes.”

“Also present at the hearing were Emma Carr, director of Big Brother Watch, Eric Metcalfe, of Justice, and Hanne Stevens, the interim director of Rights Watch UK. When Ms Blears asked whether Ms Sankey’s colleagues shared that view, Ms Carr said: “Yes.””

However, Emma Carr has hit back at the allegation, insisting that she and the other representatives were taken out of context, and that she had not been agreeing to the premise of the question. In a press release, Ms Carr said that Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the chair of the committee, “posed a blistering range of questions which led to an inference that the witnesses believed that as a matter of principle we were on the side of terrorists.

“This line of questioning and our subsequent responses have been presented in the ISC’s report and in some areas of the national press as a fait accompli that the civil liberties organisations in the UK believe that terrorism is a “price worth paying” to prevent mass surveillance.

“This is frankly a disgrace. Adopting a line of questioning with the intention of putting words into the mouths of witnesses should not be the behaviour of a Committee.”

Page 11 of the uncorrected transcript prepared by the Committee shows the following exchange:

Chair: “… You expressed your belief that bulk interception does not, in practice, produce any substantial benefits. I accept that is what you believe on the basis of what you have expressed. However, you were asked whether you would still be opposed to bulk interception if there was hard evidence that it had produced significant material that led to terrorists being apprehended or prevented from carrying out their deeds. …”

Emma Carr: “As far as I am concerned, there has been nothing shown in the UK to show that. For millions—”


Chair: “… If evidence emerged through bulk interception that even you acknowledged had led to terrorists being arrested or prevented from carrying out their objectives, are you saying that, as a matter of principle, you believe so strongly that bulk interception is unacceptable in a free society that you would say that that was a price we should be willing to pay, rather than allowing intelligence agencies to use bulk interception methods?”

Isabella Sankey: “Yes.”

Dr Metcalfe: “Yes. Just as you would solve a lot more crimes if you had CCTV in everyone’s houses, and if you opened everyone’s mail and e-mail and read it on a daily basis. Yes, you would solve a lot more crimes and a lot more terrorists would be in jail; that would be a good thing, but it would be bad for our society as a whole.”

Q29 Chair: “And that is the view of your colleagues as well?”

Emma Carr: “Yes.”

Ms Carr says “my agreement in this line of questioning was with the argument that Dr Metcalfe had made, not the question that was posed to Ms Sankey.

“There are two opinions on the issue of when the intrusion into people’s privacy takes place. One view, which is ours, is that intrusion at the point of collection could create the potential for a breach of privacy, the other view is that the intrusion only begins when a communication is read.

“We, along with most members of the general public, are completely supportive of targeted surveillance investigations. However we do not support the mass collection or reading of innocent people’s communications.

“We are of course disappointed that the ISC has decided to use the precious air time provided to debate these issues to target the privacy campaigners rather than discuss the more pressing issues, including the failure of the Committee to present any evidence to show that mass surveillance on UK citizens has saved lives. However, this is unfortunately what we have come to expect from our spy agency watchdog.”

Responding to the Intelligence and Security Committee report on mass surveillance, Director of ‘Liberty’ Shami Chakrabarti has said:

“The ISC has repeatedly shown itself as a simple mouthpiece for the spooks – so clueless and ineffective that it’s only thanks to Edward Snowden that it had the slightest clue of the agencies’ antics.

“No doubt it would be simpler if we went along with the spies’ motto of ‘no scrutiny for us, no privacy for you’ – but what an appalling deal for the British public.”

And Andrea Coomber, Director of JUSTICE said: “Drawing an artificial dichotomy between policing and security and privacy in this context is deeply unhelpful.

“If what is proposed is a statutory power to collate and store a vast and untargeted pool of our private communications, that  would see a step-change in the relationship  between the State and the citizen in the UK. This is a step which must be considered seriously and which can’t be worth taking “just in case”.”

This is the second time in as many months that the ISC has come under fire for protecting the agencies it is supposed to be scrutinising.

Last month the senior Conservative backbencher David Davis MP, who piloted the bill that founded the ISC through the Parliament during his time as Home Secretary, was reported by the BBC as saying: “What sort of people join an Intelligence and Security Committee? They approve of what the agencies are trying to do, as do most of us. But they are excited by it and they get taken in. It is a very glamorous world and they feel privileged to be inside it so there is a tendency to capture.”

He added: “To date the [ISC] chairman [Sir Malcolm] has acted almost invariably as a spokesman for the spooks rather than as a critical friend.”