Liberty chief: Watchdog too close to spymasters

Shami Chakrabarti: 'Blanket snooping was not exposed'. Picture: BBC
Shami Chakrabarti: 'Blanket snooping was not exposed'. Picture: BBC
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A parliamentary watchdog responsible for interrogating Britain’s spy chiefs jointly and in public for the first time has been accused of making friends with the agencies rather than holding them to account.

MI6 chief Sir John Sawers, MI5 director general Andrew Parker and GCHQ director Sir Iain Lobban will be questioned about controversial snooping activities when they give evidence before the intelligence and security committee (ISC) next week.

But Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti claimed there were “structural problems” with the ISC and questioned whether the session would be a “PR exercise”.

She said: “There are structural problems with his committee, which historically has been a watchdog that makes friends and doesn’t always bark in the night.

“This is a committee that is accountable to the Prime Minister and not to parliament. This is a committee that did not expose extraordinary rendition using kidnap and torture at the height of the war on terror.

“This is a committee that did not expose this blanket snooping that emerged from the Snowden revelations.”

MPs and peers are expected to grill the chiefs on claims about the way they have been carrying out their work following the classified material leaked by Edward Snowden about UK and US intelligence operations.

The committee, held in parliament on Thursday, will be broadcast but with a short time delay to allow anything which ‘’might endanger national security or the safety of those working for the agencies’’ to be cut.

The ISC said the session would give the public an insight into the world of intelligence and “represents a very significant step forward in terms of the openness and transparency of the agencies”.

ISC chairman Sir Malcolm Rifkind said the committee would quiz the chiefs about “recent controversies” including whether the agencies are acting under law or the discretion to act on their own initiative.

He said: “We are not going to ask them questions which could only be answered by revealing secret information. We do ask them that, that’s what we ask them in private, but what has become already evident is you can have an intelligent and mature debate on intelligence issues, including the intelligence chiefs themselves, without having to reveal specific secrets.

“We are entitled to say look, in the work you do, there are serious allegations that you are intruding on the privacy of the public, that you are reading all their e-mails,could you respond to that? Give them the opportunity to say their point of view.”