The intelligence and security committee maintains secrecy for good reasons

One of the great dilemmas of a free
and democratic society is how we
reconcile preserving our liberty
with the need to allow our
intelligence agencies to intercept
our mail and tap our telephones.
What is equally important,
however, is to examine, constantly,
how much information about the
activities of the intelligence
agencies can be shared with the
public without harm to the
legitimate needs of national
security.
The intelligence and security
committee - the ISC - which I chair,
is composed of senior
parliamentarians, entirely
independent of the government.
We have the power and the duty to
investigate the actions of MI5, MI6
and GCHQ to uncover the truth.
Until now the ISC has held all its
evidence sessions in private. This
has been crucial because the whole
point of our work is to get access to
and examine not only the heads of
the intelligence agencies but also to
see their top secret files, documents
and intelligence raw material. It is
obvious that such matters can only
be dealt with in private session.
Notwithstanding that, the ISC has
decided, and obtained agreement
from MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, to have
an occasional evidence session in
public, before the television
cameras.
We had been planning to have our
first public session of evidence this
week. The Guardian has rebuked us
for postponing this session until the
autumn. We are unrepentant. We
have postponed (not cancelled) the
session for very serious reasons.
Our immediate priority is to do
detailed work both on the
intelligence aspects of the murder
in Woolwich of Lee Rigby , and to
examine the allegations against
GCHQ arising out of the leaking of
secrets by Edward Snowden . To do
that seriously requires us not just to
ask GCHQ and MI5 whether various
allegations are true or false. We
need to see any relevant reports,
intercepts and other raw
intelligence material. Most of this
will be highly classified material.
The Guardian suggests that these
issues should, nevertheless, have
been raised in a public hearing,
before the cameras, this week. With
respect, that is very unconvincing.
Any questions that we asked in
public session, and the answers that
we received, would of necessity
have been so general and
superficial as to be of little public
benefit. No doubt the Guardian
would have then criticised us for
such an inadequate investigation.
We are determined that our public
sessions with the intelligence chiefs
will not be done for entertainment.
There is much, of value, that can be
discussed in public. What is the
need for intelligence agencies when
the cold war has been over for
more than 20 years? What is the
current threat from al-Qaida and
other terrorist organisations? Do
the intelligence agencies need the
£2bn of public funds that they
receive? How do they co-operate
with other countries' intelligence
agencies in the western world and
elsewhere?
Our public sessions will not,
however, be occasions when we
can carry out detailed
investigations of specific
allegations. That needs to involve
access to secret information, and
that will continue to be done - as
the public would expect - in secret.
Just as the citizen's entitlement to
privacy has to be balanced with the
need to obtain secret intelligence to
protect the citizen from terrorist
attack, so too we cannot escape the
fact that secret information
revealed to honest citizens will also
be read and acted upon by
terrorists and criminals. Getting
the balance right is never easy, but
the ISC, with parliamentarians
from all parties, has only the
public interest in mind in the
decisions it takes.