MI6, Sir John Sawers, his MI5 counterpart, Andrew Parker, and Sir Iain Lobban, head of GCHQ. Forget all the glamour and charm you saw in Skyfall, these three grim-looking men are the real spies. They appeared before a committee of senior MPs and peers for an unprecedented televised hearing. The hearing was, of course, in response to the leaks by Edward Snowden, which revealed widespread spying by GCHQ and the US National Security Agency, and sparked serious criticisms about trust and public confidence in government security services.
Although the sombre trio looked a little unaccustomed to the broad daylight, they gave their well-rehearsed answers comfortably enough. They gave assurances that spies do not spend their time listening in to the phone calls of the general public and reading their emails. The MI5 boss strongly affirmed, “Britain’s security services defend – rather than undermine – freedom and democracy”. They openly criticised Edward Snowden and the Guardian, claiming that the revelations they made were a threat to national security. Sir John Sawers of MI6 criticised the leaks (with some strange metaphors) saying, “our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee” and al-Qaeda “is lapping it up”.
Central to the criticism against the security services was journalist Glenn Greenwald, who worked with Mr Snowden on stories for the Guardian. He argued that “there was a huge suspicion-less system of mass spying that the British people and the American people had no idea had been built in their name and with their money.” Hence, the spies also defended the claim that the security services are worth the £2bn in taxpayer money they receive each year.
…the spies were not grilled…
Although they were asked many relevant questions, the spies were not grilled. They did not face any of the difficult questions about their transparency and accountability, such as why their mass data surveillance did not need an explicit parliamentary vote. Shami Chakrabarti, the director of civil rights group Liberty, argued that the questions asked “would not have scared a puppy”. There will, at least, be a chance for some more challenging questions to be asked- the session ended with news that it won’t be the last: Sir Malcolm Rifkind concluded by saying “we look forward to further open sessions”.
Also, watch out next month to hear the Guardian defend the revelations they printed. Their editor, Alan Rusbridger, is to be questioned by MPs about his newspaper’s publication of intelligence files following these warnings from the spies that the revelations were damaging national security. It will be very interesting to hear his rebuttal and what he has to say about the actions of the government security services in this highly-charged ongoing debate.