By Gordon Corera, Security correspondent
BBC News Online – 13 December 2022
Concern about the growing media presence of British spies has been raised by MPs on the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. A report by the ISC refers to newspaper interviews by MI5 and GCHQ bosses, and the head of MI6's Twitter account. Spy chiefs have also appeared on the BBC, and the head of GCHQ is set to guest edit Radio 4's Today programme. Agencies have used social media and interviews to explain their work and increase recruitment and diversity.
In its annual report, the committee said it recognised the
"important role public outreach can play in attracting employees by opening up about the culture and working practices in such secret organisations"
but it said such activity
"must be undertaken in a strategic and considered manner".
"The committee is concerned that, if media engagement strategies go too far, they risk trivialising the important work of the agencies and diverting their focus from national security priorities. Social media is also known to be a battleground for covert hostile state action, so any enhanced media engagement should not undermine the agencies' ability to act covertly and keep the UK safe."
It pointed to a number of recent interviews by spy chiefs – and the head of MI6's Twitter account. Richard Moore, also known as 'C', tweets far more than any other head past or present of an agency.
The MPs also pointed to anonymised media interviews with lower-ranking employees, saying there had been
"a clear step-change for the agencies, who have traditionally shied away from such exposure – particularly of junior staff".
The committee, chaired by Julian Lewis MP, also revealed there had been tensions over the agencies' ability to meet deadlines when providing information to the parliamentary watchdog overseeing their work. The committee said it had been
"severely hampered over the past year by the failure of the UK Intelligence Community to provide responses to the committee in accordance with the deadlines set".
It said that in its 2019-21 annual report, it had put delays down to the agencies' reduced resources during the pandemic, and their need to focus on immediate national security threats.
"However this is no longer a credible explanation,"
it said. The report called this a "serious issue" which it said prevented the ISC from "effectively performing its statutory oversight role".
However, in a press notice accompanying the annual report, the committee said it had been reassured that the head of the intelligence agencies
"appear to have recognised the need to address this situation and (the committee) trusts that they will now take action to improve their responses".
But the report added there had been an "erosion of oversight" because of a growing number of intelligence and security activities carried out within units of government departments that the committee did not have oversight of. The report named units including
- the Investment Security Unit in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy;
- the Telecoms Security and Resilience Team in Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS);
- the Office of Communications in DCMS;
- the Counter Disinformation Unit in DCMS;
- the Transport Security, Resilience and Response Group in the Department for Transport;
- the Intelligence Policy Department in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; and
- the Joint Biosecurity Unit in Department of Health and Social Care.
The committee said there was a previous undertaking to Parliament that the ISC would have oversight of
"substantively all of central government's intelligence and security activities"
but this had not taken place as new units had been created.