Intelligence, in more ways than one is the only way forward.
It was good to hear George Osborne on Tuesday stress the dangers of digital warfare as he announced the country’s first “cyber force” at GCHQ.
It was good, too, to hear David Cameron the night before saying the government would invest more on the security and intelligence agencies, and special forces, and adopt a holistic approach, including soft power, as part of a “full spectrum response” to the threat posed by hackers and terrorists.
These initiatives – which I, with others, have often advocated – are of course placed in a more urgent context in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris.
They will feature prominently in the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) due to be unveiled next Monday, two days before the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review.
But increased resources and an expanding role for the security and intelligence services, and special forces, must be accompanied by more robust and independent scrutiny of their acitivites.
While the signs are that the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) will be more effective under the new chairmanship of former attorney general, Dominic Grieve, Cameron has in the past insisted that special forces must remain beyond scrutiny.
The laws of war – and the use of drones in particular – require renewed scrutiny, as was suggested in Tuesday’s Guardian.
Where all this leaves the replacement of Trident and the Royal Navy’s two supercarriers – two hugely expensive projects, surely both irrelevant in the fight against terrorism – the SDSR will have difficulty in explaining.
Sir John Sawers, who retired as head of MI6 last year, wrote a perceptive piece in Monday’s Financial Times, pointing to the shortcomings of the French security and intelligence agencies – similar to those which afflicted MI5 and MI6 until recently.
The DGSI, France’s internal security service, Sawers observed, is having to shift from its police methods to an intelligence-led approach. Intercepting communications, he noted, came under France’s foreign intelligence agency. (The fact that GCHQ is accountable to the foreign secretary is fast becoming an anomaly.)
Sawers also made the point that there has been a “tacit cooperation” between Syria’s President Assad and Isis – they have avoided direct conflict, trade in oil and both have targeted the mnore moderate rebel militia groups in Syria.
The original sin remains the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This is why the Chilcot report should still be extremely relevant despite its long gestation. You only need to read the devastating evidence of Eliza (now Lady) Maniningham-Buller, head of MI5 at the time.
Asked to what extent the conflict in Iraq exacerbated the overall threat that MI5 and MI6 faced from international terrorism, she replied simply: “Substantially.”
Whitehall’s Joint Intelligence Committee, repeatedly warned that terrorism, not Saddam Hussein, was the greatest threat to Britain’s security. Half of MI6 echoed this – the other half went along with the Blair administration’s abuse of their secret intelligence.
Chilcot will say a lot about “lessons learned” from the invasion of Iraq and its subsequent occupation with the dangerous vacuum left by the dismantling of Iraqi’s ruling Ba’ath party and the army. These lessons could yet have a bearing on the future of Syria.
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