A grilling that wouldn't have scared a puppy

Posted by Bella Sankey on 08 November 2013

Our Policy Director Isabella Sankey responds to the first public questioning of Britain’s spy agency chiefs yesterday:

As feared, yesterday’s “grilling” consisted of friendly and open-ended questions – resulting in few specific answers and barely anything not already on the public record. These public servants have presided over blanket surveillance of the entire population without public, parliamentary or democratic mandate. But Parliament’s response yesterday was woeful. There was also an odd, circular feel to proceedings with questions about accountability met by repeated statements about oversight by the Committee – despite the fact that little of substance was discussed.

Only a small part of the session was dedicated to the Snowden revelations. And much of this granted a platform to repeat claims that disclosures had harmed national security. No evidence or examples could be offered. Sir Malcolm Rifkind did press them on why the British people weren’t told of the mass surveillance they are being subjected to, only to be informed that “certain methods should be kept secret – but secret doesn’t mean sinister”. Astonishingly, despite the damning revelations, they claimed that developments in technology have made their job harder and remain wedded to the view that blanket interception of the calls and emails of innocent Britons should not be in the public domain.

There was also a claim from Andrew Parker that the outdated RIPA is working just fine because it is expressed in technology-neutral terms and, again, because the heads of the services come to give evidence to Parliament – despite the fact the legislation was drafted back in 2000 before modern-day abilities for mass surveillance were imagined. And the trio’s insistence that they don’t push for new powers, and platitudes about incorporating human rights into all they do, rang rather hollow in the light of recent disclosures.