SECURITY & INTELLIGENCE SERVICES – 21 November 2011
Dr Julian Lewis: I begin by reassuring the shadow Home Secretary that, in my limited experience – I have been a member of the ISC for just over a year – such is the sense of cross-party common purpose on the Committee, I would have no difficulty in accepting as Chairman any of the Committee’s three excellent Labour members. However, such a thing is completely unnecessary given the outstanding chairmanship of my Right Hon. and Learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) – [Hon. Members: “Hear hear!”] I am glad to hear Opposition Members’ endorsements.
In his opening remarks, my Right Hon. and Learned Friend mentioned the totally discredited concept that history ended with the end of the Cold War. Topics mentioned in the debate include the Olympics, cyber-security, general terrorism and the more traditional threat from more traditional enemies. In my somewhat disparate remarks, I shall try to touch on a few of them.
When dealing with any form of enemy of the democratic system, it is helpful to think in the ways and along the lines that they think – if we have such twisted minds, to which some of us must own up. Our initial reaction in respect of the Olympic Games is to think, “There must be a huge extra effort to protect the Games,” but what would terrorists planning a series of deadly attacks in the UK think? Would they think, “I must go straight away to the heart of the Games, where the maximum security effort is bound to be concentrated,” or would they think, “There will be a huge concentration of effort on the security of the Olympic Games in that fortnight, so there will be great opportunities to create mayhem in all sorts of other, less protected parts of the UK”?
Therefore, the problem facing the Security Service is that it cannot say, “With the extra effort we will put into protecting the Olympics, we will ease security measures elsewhere in the country.” The reality is that the holding of the Olympics in the UK is a considerable opportunity – I will not say that it is a heaven-sent opportunity, because it comes from a somewhat different direction – for terrorists to cause mayhem and to maximise the deadly effect of their perverted ideas carried into action. I often wonder whether it was sheer coincidence – it probably was – that the choice of London for the Olympics was announced just 24 hours before the 7/7 atrocities in 2005.
We need extra concentration because of what could be visited upon us during the Olympics, but there are also new technological threats, to which hon. Members have referred. Everybody has welcomed the increase in resources – £600 million net – to ensure greater cyber-security in future. There was concern in the past about a lack of ministerial responsibility for cyber-protection, so it comes as a great relief to the ISC and its members to know that the role will now be undertaken by the Cabinet Office, whose Ministers have a legendary reputation for the protection of sensitive information. Think about it. However, when we are considering – [Laughter]. They got there in the end. As Frankie Howerd used to say, don’t take a vote on it.
The Cabinet Office will be responsible for cyber-security, but that does not mean that it is the most suited Department to be responsible – nor has it been earmarked for the role – for the countering of the propaganda message that is used to generate recruits to the terrorist cause, which is closely related to cyber-warfare. We have heard a considerable amount about the attempts that have been made to decapitate al-Qaeda, which have enjoyed considerable success. However, we also know that attacks are increasingly lone-wolf attacks, when people self-start and trawl the internet, picking up messages and techniques that they turn into action, with deadly effect.
It is of the utmost importance that the Government seek to counter the message put out to mobilise, radicalise and turn into terrorists impressionable and sometimes unbalanced minds already in our society. It is incredibly difficult for a security service to track such people: it is much harder to track a lone-wolf potential attacker than somebody who is engaged with people abroad and part of an al-Qaeda-like organisation planning a much more sophisticated attack. We need to hear more – the Committee will make an effort to ensure that we do – of the efforts that the Government are making to neutralise the radicalising messages on the internet and put forward a counter-narrative so that people can understand the values of the society in which they live.
Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman is extremely knowledgeable in this field because of his experience before entering Parliament, but does he share my concerns about the work of the Home Office’s Research, Information and Communications Unit, which the Committee has decided to consider much more closely? It is essential work but at the moment we have little information about what it is doing and its effectiveness.
Dr Lewis: I am delighted that the right hon. Lady makes that point. It is too early to have concerns about the work of the unit because we have not been able to examine yet. The work that such a unit is designed to do is, as she said, of the utmost importance, and if it carries it out successfully the public at large might not know how successful it has been in supporting themes and counter-narrative ideologies in the media and internet to the benefit of people in our society who might otherwise become disaffected. However, unless one can examine the organisation’s work – within what is commonly called the ring of secrecy – one cannot be sure whether sufficient work is being done or about its quality.
On page 44, paragraph 156 of our report, the Committee stated:
“The difficulty of measuring the success of PREVENT work is most notable in the work of the Research, Information and Communications Unit …which was established in 2007 with the primary aim of ensuring consistency, across government, on counter-terrorism and counter-extremism messages and developing a coherent narrative to challenge extremist ideology. RICU is jointly funded by the Home Office and the Foreign Office. It currently has 22 full-time staff and its budget in 2010/11 was £4.25m (of which £0.3m was spent on research and £2.7m was spent on communication campaigns).”
That does not sound like an effort on the scale needed, if we are seriously to counter the radicalising message of the enemies of our way of life.
Democratic societies are inherently resistant to governments propagandising against organisations involving their own citizens, in an attempt to get a message across to their own people; but sometimes we have to understand that there are forms of warfare besides open warfare – for example, the propaganda and counter-propaganda warfare that went on during the long confrontation with Soviet communism. During that period, in 1948, a Labour Government set up the Foreign Office’s Information Research Department, which remained in existence until 1977 under governments of both complexions, until unfortunately another Labour Government decided to do away with it. That organisation operated on a considerable scale, and its particular strength was that it made available to opinion-formers the detailed facts that enabled strong cases for what was good about British society to be made on a non-partisan, non-party political basis. I believe – I think that the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) shares my belief – that an effort on a similar scale might be necessary in the future.
On the Committee’s operations, I can reassure the Home Secretary: she said that we need to consider the resource implications of the Committee expanding its work to consider operational matters; but I am not sure that there are many resource implications, because as my Right Hon. and Learned Friend the Member for Kensington said, we are asking not to change what we do but simply to formalise what we already do. We are not asking to look over the shoulder of the Intelligence and Security Services at what they are doing while they are doing it – in an operational sense – although they sometimes choose to give us glimpses of that, which obviously we treat with appropriate discretion. Instead, we wish to be assured that when something becomes contentious, the ISC can review the matter and decide whether proper procedures were followed, whether mistakes were made or whether we can help the Security and Intelligence Services by giving them a clean bill of health.
I shall take an example at random. It is known that over the years the approach of Governments towards Libya changed completely. Under the Labour Government, there was a policy – I am sure that its proponents would argue that it was a legitimate line to pursue – of trying to bring Libya back into the fold. For example, when Libya declared its intention to abandon its chemical weapons stocks – we now know that it still had some, although we do not know whether that was because it had not finished getting rid of them or because it was concealing them and cheating on its promises – it was regarded as quite a coup, quite a triumph for the Security and Intelligence Services
It now appears, however, that along the way the degree of co-operation between some of our agencies and some Libyan agencies might have crossed the line. If it did, for example in the rendition of two people, as has been reported, we will need a means of finding out why that line was crossed, which agencies crossed it, who, if anybody, was responsible – was it the Government, was it the agencies? – and whether there are lessons to be learned that we can help to articulate. If the Committee is not given the power to review such operations, many people will rightly ask, “What’s the use of having a committee of parliamentarians, whose job is supposedly to supervise the Security and Intelligence Services, if when something highly controversial appears to have happened, it cannot, does not or will not look into it?”
I want to refer to one or two of the slightly more traditional threats. It was interesting to hear that the agencies still think that we should not, in our rightful concern about international terrorism, forget that the country remains an intelligence target for countries such as Russia and China. One of the things that worry me the more I focus on it is the possibility that some countries could steal our technology, use it to undercut our competitiveness and then buy their way into our infrastructure in this country. This would be of great strategic value to them in future. I will say no more about that for the moment, but I hope that others might feel it appropriate to do so later in the debate.
Finally, I warmly welcome the proposal in the Justice Green Paper to prevent the 'control order' principle being breached. Irrespective of what piece of intelligence was disclosed in court, we must never forget that if we undermine the trust between ourselves and our principal intelligence allies on that issue, we undermine it on every issue. However, it also behoves us to remind our intelligence partners that when they engage in methods and techniques such as Guantanamo Bay and water-boarding, they open up not only themselves but their allies to challenges in court that make such problems much more salient, in respect of the evidence that a judge might feel had to be disclosed. It is a question of exercising two-way restraint: we do not wish to breach the confidence of our allies, but our allies must not breach the standards to which our Intelligence Services rightly apply themselves.