MPs quiz spy chiefs as-it-happened

Adam Bienkov By

13.35 - The commons' intelligence and security committee are about to question Britain's chief spooks. This is the first time such a meeting has ever been televised in the UK and parliamentary authorities are understandably nervous about it.

As a result, no members of the public and only a small number of print journalists will be allowed into the committee. Mobile phones have been barred. The televised feed will have a delay on it as well so service may be delayed if the spy chiefs, or any of the MPs accidentally blurt out any state secrets.

You can read our preview of today's encounter over here.

13.50 - Today's meeting comes at a sensitive time for both the intelligence services and the government. The Edward Snowden revelations and the Guardian's reporting of Britain's surveillance of foreign leaders has been hugely embarassing for the government.

Today 28 Tory MPs have written to the Guardian expressing their displeasure with the coverage and ordering the paper to open up their files to the security services. They write:

"We are asking you to do no more than to share with our intelligence services, the very people who protect the freedoms which the Guardian champions, that which you have already shared freely with international bloggers and journalists who have no concept of the UK national interest."

Expect to hear more of this during the session.

14.03 - And we're off. Malcolm Rifkind begins by congratulating the committee for opening itself up to TV cameras and sets out all the issues they can't talk about. This includes the murder of Lee Rigby, as it is now sub judice.

14.06 - MI5 chief Andrew Parker asked if the intelligence services have become too powerful. "The suggestion that somehow what we do is compromising democracy, we believe the opposite is the case," he replies saying their job is to protect those freedoms.

14.10 - "We are not crystal ball gazers" says Sawers when asked why intelligence services failed to predit the Arab Spring, 9/11 and the end of the Cold War. He says this is a job for others.

14.13 - The internet has helped terrorism says GCHQ chief Iain Lobban, both in organisation and propaganda.

14.15 - "All of our lives are moving on to the internet and we have to operate there as well" says Parker.

14.19 - Of the three men, Sawers looks the most like you would expect a spy chief to look. I would almost suggest he looks a bit sinister, but I don't much fancy being rendered to a holding cell somewhere in the Pacific. He looks normal, perfectly normal.

14.23 - Sawers claims the security services only work within the law and will not work with regimes that do not respect the rule of law. "There are very strong ethical standards" in the organisation, he claims.

14.25 - Sawers denies complicity in torture. Says they have "found other ways of disrupting threats" than using information derived from torture.

14.27 - Parker asked if he would go ahead with questioning a siuspect if he thought ti would lead to torture: "Absolutely not" he replies.

14.31 - Sawers: "More British citizens have been killed overseas in 2013 than in the previous seven years put together". He claims Al-Qaida are "emerging and forming and multiplying in a whole new range of countries".

14.35 - The questions have not been very tough. Compare the ISC's treatment of spy chiefs today, to the Home Affairs Committee's treatment of the 'plebgate' officers earlier this week. Deference has been the order of the day so far.

14.40 - Parker flatly denies that 7/7 was an intelligence failure. He isn't asked to explain how it was an intelligence success.

14.45 - Parker claims there were a number of terror plots during the London Olympics last year but "they didn't happen".

14.51 - Malcolm Rifkind: "some would say the real cyber threat comes from GCHQ" Is this right? Finally an interesting question. Iain Lobban replies that they're trying to gather hay to "find the needles or fragments of needles" they're looking for, while "not intruding on the surrounding hay." He adds that if his employees wanted to "snoop" on citizens he wouldn't have them in the building.

14.56 - A typically searching question from Hazel Blears: can you guarentee you're not breaking the law? Spy chiefs: yes.

15.01 - I suspect Sawers eyebrows are the MI6's secret weapon. Who needs waterboarding to terrify suspects when you've got those arched brows looming towards you? Chilling.

15.05  - Members of the ISC are chosen by the prime minister. They're clearly not chosen for their willingness to give the security services a hard time. Hazel Blears in particular is the most spectacular toady. Painful to watch.

15.07 - Lobban goes on the attack against the Guardian. He says the "cumulative effect of [their] media coverage will make our job much harder for years to come" and says he has evidence of terrorists and criminals already changing their behaviour to avoid their surveillance.

15.10 - Terrorists "are rubbing their hands with glee... Al Qaeda are lapping it up" at Snowden coverage claims Sawers.

15.20 - My prediction: that "rubbing hands" quote will be all over the front pages of certain newspapers tomorrow.

15.28 - The Guardian have just responded to the accusations from spy chiefs today:

"In the context of some of the spy chiefs' comments, it is worth noting that Guardian stories on the Snowden revelations have been published after consultation with the government's DA Notice committee, with intelligence agencies themselves, or with officials in Whitehall. Following those discussions the Guardian has agreed not to publish certain things, and has made independent decisions to redact certain details, names, locations and operations."

15.31 - GCHQ chief Andrew Parker says there is still a "lively business" in international espionage in the UK, which takes up about 10% of his work.

15.33 - Sawers asked if they "spy on everyone"? "We have very limited resources. Of course we don't spy on everyone."

15.36 - The session comes to a close. The BBC's intelligence correspondent describes it as "pretty turgid stuff". It's hard to disagree. Vintage parliamentary scrutiny this wasn't.

15.38 - Final thoughts: It's a positive development to have these sessions in public, but the committee needs a radical shake up if it's going to hold the security services to account. in the future.

The questions were tame, without searching follow ups and despite an hour and a half of questioning, the spy chiefs did not get ruffled once. This was the establishment questioning itself, with entirely predictable results.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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