Parliamentary committee 'too busy' to question intelligence agencies

The parliamentary intelligence and
security committee (ISC) has
postponed questioning the
intelligence agencies in front of the
television cameras this week,
delaying the unprecedented event
until after the summer recess,
because it says it is too busy
focusing on the murder of Lee
Rigby and revelations about
GCHQ's activities.
Nick Clegg, the deputy prime
minister, appeared to have been
unaware of the postponement as he
revealed at his monthly press
conference that the agencies were
to give evidence to the cross-party
committee on Thursday. He cited
the event as a sign of the agencies'
commitment to public
accountability.
The committee said the session had
been postponed because it wanted
to focus on the recent revelations
about GCHQ's activities, and the
intelligence agencies' failure to
track the alleged murderers of Lee
Rigby, who was killed outside
Woolwich barracks. It did not say
why it could not have pursued these
issues in public with the agencies
on Thursday, arguably an ideal
time to question them.
Clegg said: "I cannot stress enough
how important I think it that the
ISC has got the new powers. Don't
underestimate what a break with
convention it is that you have got
the heads of the intelligence
agencies going to the ISC this
Thursday to give televised
evidence."
He added: "All of us in senior
positions across government have
urged the intelligence agencies to
account for themselves because that
is what accountability is all about
to the ISC."
Asked if he was surprised by the
capacity of GCHQ to track
telecommunications, he said: "I
don't think we should be surprised
at all that our intelligence agencies
use technology to keep us safe. The
question is: do they do that in a
way that is proportionate,
accountable and doesn't unduly
trample on people's liberty and
privacy?"
The committee has said nothing on
the string of revelations flowing
from documents released by
Edward Snowden since it issued a
one-line sentence a month ago
saying it was waiting for a report
from the intelligence agencies on
GCHQ.
The absence of a political debate in
the UK on the issues contrasts
starkly with what has happened in
the US and Germany. The US
president, Barack Obama, has
actively welcomed the debate and
defended the role of the agencies.
Clegg did say there was "palpable
disquiet" in parts of Europe about
reports of US and UK intelligence
operations .
It is the first time a British minister
has admitted there is political and
diplomatic concern at the reports
on the scale of UK intelligence
operations, including in Germany
and the European Union.
Clegg said he was not going to
comment on leaks or give a
running commentary on
intelligence matters. But he
claimed: "I can tell you that my
experience of being in government
is that the checks and balances that
exist to make sure that the
intelligence that is gathered by
British intelligence are second to
none."
He claimed those constraints had
been dramatically strengthened by
the coalition government when it
transformed the powers of the ISC,
including giving it unprecedented
powers to call for evidence from
the intelligence agencies. He said
that "for the first time the ISC can
initiate investigations without
asking permission of the
government or the agencies
themselves".
"I have an old-fashioned liberal
belief that, yes, of course it is
necessary for our security that
things are done in secret, but we
have got to make sure we have got
belt and braces to make sure things
are done lawfully."
He said he had personally verified
that the checks and balances
existed, including direct ministerial
oversight in the field of
communications intelligence.
"I still believe the powers on the
statute book are considerable,
proportionate and allow the
agencies to do their work," he
added.