Oversight Of Spies Is 'Weak' And PM Should Not Threaten The Guardian, Says Tory MP

Dominic Raab has attacked 'weak' intelligence oversight
Dominic Raab has attacked 'weak' intelligence oversight
REX Features

The "weak" committee of MPs that oversees the intelligence agencies is too ready to believe what it is told by Britain's spies and there is no evidence newspapers have damaged national security by publishing leaks from National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden, a Conservative MP has said.

Ahead of a parliamentary debate triggered by the revelations about the global activities of US and British spies, Dominic Raab told The Huffington Post UK that the attacks on The Guardian were "frankly pretty febrile".

"Newspapers and politicians and members of the public have to make sure we don't impair this country's national security. But I have to say I haven't seen or heard or read anything which isn't really about political embarrassment for either the agencies or the government," he said.

"I think we have to be very careful we don't let national security be a fig leaf to shout down proper debate about the oversight and accountability of the security services."

On Thursday, Raab, along with Lib Dem Julian Huppert and Labour's Tom Watson will lead a parliamentary debate on the activities of the British security services. The debate is in part a response to a similar one held by Conservative backbencher Julian Smith - in which he called for The Guardian to be prosecuted for publishing information about the intelligence agencies.

David Cameron has also claimed the leaks published in the press has damaged national security. And earlier this week the prime minister hinted he may take "tougher measures" against The Guardian if it continues to publish material obtained from Snowden.

But Raab said he did not think it was wise for politicians to make "threats" against newspapers and worried it was part of a move against free speech in Britain.

"I've got to say I can understand the call for responsibility, but the fact of the matter is, the press operate under the law as it currently is. I don't see there has been any tangible demonstration that The Guardian have imperilled national security," he said.

"I think we as politicians need to be very careful. There is a broader trend going on here whether it's Leveson, whether it’s the Lobbying Bill, and now these intelligence and surveillance revelations, the scope for free speech risks being narrowed and we need it more than ever. I get quite wary when politicians start making threats whether they are legal or otherwise."

Intelligence chiefs have been hauled in front of Congress in the United States to explain their activities. And the usually supportive Democratic chair of the Senate intelligence committee, Diane Feinstein, has hammered the NSA over reports it spied on foreign leaders and allies.

But the outrage in the US has not been matched in the UK. Raab said he believed this was due to a "culture and constitution of free speech" and challenging executive power that did not exist in Britain. "Frankly whether you are a Democrat or a Tea Party Republican that strikes a chord with you," he said.

He said: "If you look at the reaction of Congress in America and in particular Senator Feinstein, who made a very robust statement. I would expect parliament to take equally robust approach in defence of the rule of law in this country and also our citizens."

"Here we are much more deferent. The accountability and oversight of the intelligence agencies is frankly pretty weak. I don't think the Intelligence and Security Committee [ISC] is capable of exerting proper scrutiny, even under its brilliant chairman."

"It feels to me much more like a committee that is nominated and accountable to the executive rather than to parliament. It appears to feel that too ready to believe what it is told by the intelligence agencies."

The ISC is chaired by former Conservative foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind and includes senior MPs including former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell and former Labour cabinet minister Hazel Blears. The prime minister has insisted its oversight of the intelligence agencies is a "good system". But critics argue it is too close to the people it is supposed to be holding to account.

Raab said he wanted to ensure there was more oversight and accountability in the relationship between the intelligence agencies and parliament. And suggested the ISC became more like a traditional Commons select committee where intelligence agencies give evidence to MPs in a more transparent way. "Given the practises in the US, I can't see a deal breaking reason we can’t do something similar here," he said.

"Unless the intelligence agencies are on a firm legal footing they will be weakened in carrying out their functions," he said. "At the moment whether you look at the UK access to information form the PRISM programme or via Operation Tempora, what is the legal basis being applied? What are the safeguards to British citizens? And has that system frayed at the edges or been broken?"

Raab also insisted there was cross-party support for a shake-up in the way the intelligence agencies were governed. "You won’t find Julian Huppert, Tom Watson and myself teaming up on many things. But I've got no problem breaking bread with politicians of other parties on an issue that is so important and i know there are quite a lot of conservatives that feel like that as well."

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