Watching the Watchers

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Intelligence and Security Committee chairman Malcolm Rifkind has launched a 'root and branch inquiry' into the group's future. (Courtesy: Ray Tang)

By Ann-Marie de Veer
Saturday 25 January 2014

In a June 2011 post by the Guardian, the Chairman of the UK Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) Malcolm Rifkind stated the need for a "root and branch inquiry" into the failure of the committee.

He was referring to the commonly held perception by both the ISC and parliament that there was insufficient oversight of the security agencies and it was in the public interest for greater transparency to prevail. He then went on to identify two key issues that he would like to be addressed, namely: the security and intelligence agencies power to decline a request from the ISC for information and their power to decide what information should be kept secret.

Nothing happened for two years until Rifkind, prompted by the Guardian's report of widesppread surveilence by GCHQ and the NSA, was finally forced to act.

Dianne Feinstein with Patrick J. Leahy. She has been forthright and unapologetic in defending surveillance efforts. (Courtesy J. Scott Applewhite)

In the US, Amy Zegart, a co-director of the US Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), concluded in her September 2011 book entitled Eyes on Spies that "Congress is not designed to oversee intelligence agencies well".

She was referring of course to the inability of Congress to reign in either the Executive or the Judiciary, in particular the quasi-judicial courts employed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Zegart's conclusion is supported by Congress's failure to resolve issues like the communications law back in May 2010 and the subsequently ill-fated Privacy Act of August 2012.

Again, nothing happened for almost two years until the Washington Post, mirroring the reports by the Guardian, printed the PRISM story in the US media, but unlike their parliamentary counterparts in the UK who understood the need to review their powers, the Congressional Intelligence Committees (CIC's), led by Dianne Feinstein, sought to fight it

Thus, while the ISC in the UK were at first blissfully ignorant and then woefully apathetic, the CIC's in the US were equally as ineffective suffering from entrenched bipartisan myopia and then juvenile belligerence.

Fast forward to January 2014: while meetings have been held and speeches have been made, nothing much has changed.