Thinkers’ Corner – Intelligence Agencies and Public Policy

Image: York Student Think Tank

Image: York Student Think Tank

The security services and the policy makers they serve have occasionally had a rather strained relationship. Be it Harold Wilson’s apparently unfounded claims that MI5 was spying on him or the rumoured surveillance of any politician with even slight left-leaning tendencies during the Cold War, they do not always seem to be working towards the same goal. However, nowadays the UK intelligence agencies are often given a privileged position by politicians, especially considering their role at the forefront of the fight against terror.

At the end of 2015, Cameron announced that he was expanding the total headcount of all the intelligence agencies by 15%, whilst additionally increasing funding for the agencies and special forces. This is even in the wake of the Snowden leaks that sparked huge interest in the works of Western intelligence agencies, but whilst the US has taken some measures to circumscribe the more intrusive powers, the UK has had a rather more apathetic response. Theresa May has even taken steps to enhance the powers of the security services, under the so-called ‘snoopers charter’.

To give a more quantitative measure of the relationship, let’s take a look at some figures surrounding data interception. During 2014 517,236 authorisations and notices for communications data were given, however of those only 9.8% were for the intelligence agencies. These kinds statistics suggest there is a clear discrepancy between the way the public view the amount of data they gather, versus what they actually collect.

That being said, a recent intelligence and security committee report concluded that there were a number of ways the intelligence agencies are acting inappropriately according to established policy. For example, the agencies have been accused of using “targeted techniques” such as going through the US Prism programme to read the content of communications without a specific warrant approved by a minister. However, while misuse of GCHQ’s interception capabilities is unlawful, it is not a specific criminal offence.

Despite some occasional setbacks in the relationship between policy and the security services, at least in the UK, they are clearly protected from any serious accountability.

A 2014 report by the Home Affairs committee highlighted the differences in oversight between the US and the UK intelligence agencies, breaking down the powers of the respective committees that watch over the services. There is the misconception that the NSA is more powerful than GCHQ, perhaps by capabilities, but when looking at the two agencies from an accountability angle there is no question that GCHQ has more freedom than their American counterparts.

Clearly, policy makers have a rather grey relationship with the intelligence community, unsure whether to cut down or to cut free these powerful entities. But if the UK’s case is anything to go by, the Snowden leaks were by no means the beginning of the end for the extensive investigatory powers granted to these security institutions.

Gobind Singh and Ellis Byrne are co-Head of Consultations and Head of Events, respectively, at York Student Think Tank

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