Skip to main content

Intelligence and Security Committee (Annual Report)

Volume 448: debated on Tuesday 11 July 2006

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Kevin Brennan.]

I am pleased to have the opportunity to open this debate on intelligence and security with particular reference to the annual report of the Intelligence and Security Committee.

I regret the circumstances in which we have to debate the issue tonight: once again, of course, today we have seen the evil face of terrorism and its terrible consequences. I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing our condolences to the families and friends of those who have lost their lives or been seriously injured in the bombings in Mumbai, India. The Government and I, and I am sure all hon. Members, unreservedly condemn the brutal murder of civilians in Mumbai. There can never be any justification for terrorism. Our thoughts and our prayers are with the victims and their families, and I am sure that I speak on behalf of the whole House when I say that we stand united with India, as the world’s largest democracy, through our shared values and shared determination, to defeat terrorism in all its forms.

Let me start our discussion tonight by placing on record my admiration and support for the extraordinary work and dedication of our intelligence and security agencies. For very good reasons, not least the danger of prejudicing cases that are before the courts, we cannot go into the details of their many successful operations, which, as I said yesterday, include the four terrorist attack plots that have been disrupted since last July alone.

We should always remember that the success of the terrorists will be writ large in headlines and in human tragedy, as in this evening’s news bulletins. The success of our intelligence and security services is, of necessity, very often murmured quietly in closed circles. So it is right on these occasions that we publicly record our thanks for their work. It is also fitting to thank, on behalf of the Government, the members of the Intelligence and Security Committee and its Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), for their valuable work over the past year. They also work in a very committed fashion away from the glare of publicity.

The importance of the Committee’s work and its independence should not be in any doubt to any hon. Member. My statement yesterday underlined how seriously the Government take its reports and recommendations, and we discussed, among other things, the 7 July commemorations last week. I do not want to dwell on the conclusions and recommendations in the ISC’s annual report, which was published on Thursday 29 June, because our response as a Government has already been published today, and hon. Members can read it at their leisure.

How can my right hon. Friend justify to the House of Commons the fact that the response to which he has just referred was not available in the Vote Office at 11 o’clock today? By such smoke and mirrors, the interference will be that, somehow, the House has taken cognisance of the response. It so happens that I raised the issue on a point of order 10 minutes ago, and a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House said that they had not the foggiest idea that that document existed. It really is a thundering disgrace. I do not blame the Home Secretary, because he has been moved in as a utility player to deal with it today, but the Government must explain why they are treating the House of Commons in this way. The document is not available; it has not been read; and it is a thundering disgrace.

My hon. Friend makes two points: first, whether or not hon. Members were aware of a response; and, secondly, whether it was available.

I am just about to answer those points. If the second point is true, I certainly would be not only surprised, but deeply disappointed, and I undertake to look into it. I am not quite sure about my hon. Friend’s reference to the utility player, but I play the role of Jamie Carragher. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what I take to be an accolade. I deeply regret it if that material was not available to hon. Members through some fault in the arrangements. That was exactly implicit in my remarks, as he said, and I made those comments without knowledge that the report was not available to hon. Members.

As I said, I do not want to dwell on the conclusions reached in either report. Suffice it to say that the Government very much welcome the Committee’s report and particularly the recognition it pays to the efforts that have been made to build counter-terrorist capacity since 9/11. Each agency has received additional funding and is undergoing expansion and modernisation. We have tried to respond in the document that we issued today—or rather ought to have issued and made available to hon. Members today—to the Committee’s main points and recommendations, including some worries that it has expressed about certain things.

I have mentioned something that we welcome: the expansion of the agencies’ activities and the resources going into them. Similarly, we welcome the Committee’s view that, despite the diversion of efforts in the wake of the July bombings, the agencies have continued essential work on all fronts. Although we rightly concentrate on counter-terrorism, we should never forget the importance of the agencies’ work on, for example, espionage, counter-proliferation and serious crime. Indeed, the Committee’s report makes it clear that the agencies are being both adaptive and innovative in dealing with the challenges that they face in what the Committee rightly describes as difficult times. In the context of such challenging times, I want to say a few words on the nature of intelligence, rather than to repeat what is in the Government’s document.

The House will be aware from the Committee’s report on the 7/7 attacks that a failure of intelligence was not to blame for the London bombings in July last year. Despite the Committee’s report, much of what is said and written about that attack continues to show, at best, a rather over-simplistic understanding of the nature of intelligence. It is absolutely crucial that we understand and convey to others the complexities and uncertainties inherent in the nature of intelligence, so that we can have a more informed dialogue.

Of course we should expect, and we receive, 100 per cent. commitment and 100 per cent. effort from the men and women in the intelligence and security agencies and from the police. Although there may be 100 per cent. commitment and 100 per cent. professionalism and dedication, there can never be a 100 per cent. guarantee that we can prevent every terrorist attack. Intelligence work is not an exact science; it is an activity that is conducted by human beings and that is concerned with the possible actions of human beings and, however perverted or misguided they may be, with their motivations and actions. Whatever the success in importing technology or scientific methodology, it can never therefore attain the predictability of a physical science.

Moreover, whether it comes from agent reporting or the interception of communications or from other types of surveillance, intelligence information is invariably fragmentary and partial, rather than a complete picture. It is information that is generally acquired against the wishes and usually without the knowledge of targets, and a complex combination of analysis, evaluation and validation is invariably required to make sense of it. Those difficulties were highlighted in the Government’s response to the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on the London terrorist attacks on 7 July 2005.

Intelligence is never an end in itself. It serves to inform our understanding of risks and threats, to provide warnings and to direct police investigations and/or disruptive action, and it plays a vital part in helping us to develop our counter-terrorism policies and strategies, as well as our operational and tactical direction.

Is the Home Secretary still convinced today that Mohammed Siddique Khan was on the periphery of the intelligence services’ radar screen? What are the key lessons for intelligence gathering and assessment that the Home Secretary thinks have been learned since 7/7?

In the wake of 7/7, several lessons have been learned, and as I promised yesterday, we will publish later a document on the lessons learned from 7/7 itself. One such lesson about intelligence and the communication of intelligence to the public was to do with threat levels; I dealt with that yesterday. Another related to the difficulties and shortcomings in terms of co-ordination across services. That was always the case, but co-ordination is now more imperative than ever because it is increasingly the case that there is a seamless web of terrorism that must be addressed across domestic, foreign and defence policies. Some operational lessons have also been learned. However, although we have learned some lessons, we will continue to learn. Like all human agencies, the intelligence agencies are not infallible, so we will continue to make mistakes on occasions, but I hope that we minimise them.

The hon. Gentleman referred to Mohammad Siddique Khan. On the information that I have as someone who is not an intelligence practitioner but who has some familiarity with that world, my judgment is that at the time when the intelligence service was looking into him as a shaded identity—he was known as a character on the fringes of a specifically directed investigation into others—he was peripheral to the inquiry in question. So far as I am aware, the information that we had on him at the time—without the benefit of hindsight—indicated a wish to participate abroad in some form of unspecified action but did not indicate a wish, a desire, a motivation or a plan to take part in any action in this country.

The judgment was made to pursue the main characters in the operation, and not to pursue a number of contacts who were regarded as peripheral. He was one of them, but there were several others. When the ISC looked into this, it came to the conclusion that the decision taken was—I think that this was the word it used—an understandable judgment. Of course, with hindsight—which all of us are now blessed with—we would have identified among the peripheral characters the two whom we now know were connected with 7/7. But, as I have said, that judgment is reached with the benefit of hindsight.

As the Home Secretary has just said, hindsight is a wonderful thing. But let me explain one of the problems that the security services—and, indeed, ourselves—have been coping with since 7 July. The so-called responsible press—I am not talking about the red tops—continually speculate and pick up little points, and then move on from that to come to conclusions. We have tried to put them to bed in the report, but the difficulty is that there have been occasions, one of which occurred two or three weeks ago, when the press were actually told that what they were about to print was untrue. But, of course, that spoiled the story, and it concerned Siddique Khan. I hope that the Home Secretary will condemn the press for that, as I do.

There are two consequences of that action. The lesser of them is that the security services and the police, who are working very hard to try to solve such situations, get rather downcast about lies coming out in responsible newspapers. But much more important are the families, who get upset, and who believe as a result of what they read that perhaps the tragedy that affected them could have been avoided, when those of us who have spent the whole year looking into the matter know that it could not.

Not for the first time, I agree with every single word that the right hon. Gentleman, who serves on the ISC, has uttered. It would be sufficient grounds on which to condemn such ill-informed speculation, particularly when it is contradicted in advance, were it merely confusing for the House or reflecting wrongly on the security services. However, the truth of the matter is that it deeply worries the families concerned, and causes them additional grieving. I say that as somebody who has met many such families, and who will continue to meet them, along with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, to attempt to answer some of their questions. I have to start most of those meetings by correcting the misrepresentations in the previous week’s press.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, there were two stories about Mohammad Siddique Khan. One was that he had been refused entry to the United States, and that our agencies had been informed of that as far back as 2003. The FBI has denied that categorically. Another was that a tracking device was put on his car before 7/7. That was, I think, specifically denied by the security services, but the newspaper involved—a broadsheet—went ahead and printed. There have been several other such stories.

The right hon. Gentleman is right. Our concern should be to reach out to the families involved, and such stories cause them a lot of unnecessary agitation and grieving.

Before the Home Secretary moves off the question of the lessons learned from last year’s bombings, are there any lessons to be learned about the level of resources that our intelligence services have, both in terms of the finances available to them and the number of staff that they have? Is he satisfied that they are currently working to the right level of resources?

Yes, I think that there are lessons to be learned. The resources have been increased, fourfold on the policing side of counter-terrorism. They have also doubled in terms of counter-terrorism and resilience from around £900 million to almost £2 billion. In December, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that a further £85 million would be given, and in the past few days an additional £34 million and £5 million have been allocated. The security services have needed more resources and if asked, they would say—I can speak with particular detail only for MI5, but I think this is also the case in terms of other agencies—that in financial terms they have got everything that they have asked for.

What is more difficult is converting the financial resources into capabilities in terms of manpower, because it takes time to recruit individuals from certain backgrounds, and to train people in languages such as Arabic and in other things. The hon. Gentleman is undoubtedly right that the demands on our intelligence services in terms of numbers and capabilities are greater than ever but, by and large—certainly with MI5, and certainly for other organisations on the figures available, with a fourfold spending increase on policing—requests for resources have been met when asked for.

I am a little concerned about whether there is enough co-ordination between agencies. Many agencies were established long ago, some as far back as 1909. The Home Secretary mentioned MI5, which answers to him along with the joint terrorism analysis centre, the Serious Organised Crime Agency and many police operations. But MI6 and GCHQ answer to the Foreign Secretary, and the Secretary of State for Defence is responsible for the Defence Intelligence Staff, and the security and intelligence co-ordinator answers directly to the Cabinet Office, along with the chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee. We then have a separate operation to deal with the ISC.

Is the Home Secretary convinced that there is enough co-ordination between all the agencies? I am a little worried that they might not be able to share the necessary amounts of information speedily enough.

Yes, I think that there is a need for co-ordination—and as we have approached that seamless web that I mentioned earlier, there has been closer co-ordination. There is a chain of command. There is now a co-ordinator, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, who is in fact answerable to me—although, of course, also to the Prime Minister. The co-ordinator operates out of the Cabinet Office precisely because he brings together MI5, MI6, GCHQ and defence. The hon. Gentleman asks for co-ordination; that is why we appointed a co-ordinator, and Sir Richard Mottram does that job very well.

In terms of the JIC and JTAC, we have gone a considerable way towards achieving the co-ordination that the hon. Gentleman asks for. We keep such matters under review, and one of the lessons of 7/7 was that we needed more co-ordination. I am prepared to look into that, as are the services; they work much more closely together. I do not deny the general thrust of what the hon. Gentleman says, but if he is angling for a homeland security Minister, we are not persuaded that that is the answer to the problem. However, closer co-ordination certainly is.

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for being so generous in giving way. He referred to the misinterpretation or misrepresentation of intelligence matters, and I agree with his comments on that. I also sympathise with those of the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates). However, the Home Secretary will know that the Butler report contained criticism of the way material was presented, not by the press, but by elements within the Government. The report said that the famous dossier

“had the result that more weight was placed on the intelligence than it could bear.”

The report also referred to the dossier’s going

“to the outer limits of the intelligence available”.

Can the Home Secretary tell us what lessons have been learned from that episode, and what steps have been taken to ensure that never again can intelligence material that was, so far as we can tell, accurate, be misrepresented—inadvertently or otherwise—in order to make a particular case?

A large number of things have been done on the basis of the Butler report’s recommendations. One of them, as it happens, concerns who holds the co-ordination post—an issue that Butler commented on specifically. The former Cabinet Secretary placed a great deal of emphasis on the type of person who got that post. Incidentally, that recommendation is not necessarily one with which the ISC appears to agree; indeed, it raised this issue in the report, so there is room for debate.

Of course, the truth is that we try to learn lessons, and there is a general problem in this regard. My personal opinion is that, the minute that one puts intelligence into the public domain, an associated problem arises. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) would be the first to demand the intelligence basis for any assertions that I made. I would then put that intelligence into the public domain to encourage him to trust me. If I put it into the public domain in its raw form, that would put at risk the operations and sources from which it came. If, however, I modified it, he would then accuse me of producing dodgy intelligence. If I said, “Better not to do it,” he would then accuse me of covering up.

I am not ascribing a personal view to the hon. Member for Lewes but rather pointing out to him that there has been an attempt to put information into the public domain in a way that enables it to be scrutinised by a number of people—not least himself and others in Parliament—but also by the independent work of the ISC. The ISC is independent of government. Although it is made up of Members of this House, even the most sceptical observer would not refer to everyone on it as an undying friend of the Labour Government, so a degree of independence can be attributed to the ISC. I hope that that helps the hon. Gentleman.

I want to make one final point to the hon. Gentleman. As I will say later, I believe that, because of the nature of intelligence, the ISC has a particular role to play. But there is also a particular obligation on us to be more scrutinising and self-critical inside this community than we would be in any other area, precisely because there is not that external validation of what we say. For instance, if the hon. Gentleman listens carefully to what I have to say on 7/7, he will realise that we have scrutinised these matters over the past period, particularly the narrative that we put into the public domain. We did that with one eye to saying that, if we find anything wrong after the public’s questioning and probing of that narrative, we will report that to the House and to the families concerned. I will come back to that point later.

My right hon. Friend will know that a number of the survivors of 7/7 have called for a public inquiry. I understand the Government’s arguments for not having one, but some of the stories that have appeared in the press concerning Khan, the ringleader of the mass murderers, are very misleading, to say the least. However, do not all the indications—including the latest, obscene video that appeared last week—now clearly show that Khan did have links with the international terrorist network and that the visits to Pakistan were not for holiday purposes? It would be useful if my right hon. Friend said now whether he agrees with that.

The last time that we had a debate on this matter, I said, I think, that there was circumstantial evidence that some of the bombers were linked to al-Qaeda. That evidence is now stronger than ever, given the second video that has come out, so I agree on that point. I will not rehearse my arguments concerning a public inquiry, because the House knows them.

Intelligence is sometimes used for tactical and operational reasons, but it is not used only for that; it is also used at a strategic level to inform decision making. In the case of intelligence on international terrorism, one example is the CONTEST strategy, which was published yesterday. At both tactical and strategic level, each piece of intelligence has to be constantly re-examined in the light of new information. That process goes on continuously, but normally, as I was saying to the hon. Member for Lewes, within the closed world of intelligence agency business. That is why we value so much the work of the ISC, an external and independent body whose aim is to provide maximum scrutiny, and which concluded that the 7/7 bombings could not have been prevented. But it is also why we—the Government, the agencies involved and those outside, and particularly those within, the intelligence and security community—should be prepared continually to scrutinise our methods, facts and conclusions.

That is why I have assured the House in the past, and assured the families of the victims of the 7/7 tragedy, that we would inform if, at any point, new information on anything came to light. In that context, I tell the House tonight that, at the end of last week, I was told that a discrepancy had indeed come to light. The official account that we provided to the House states that the train on which the bombers travelled left Luton station at 7.40 am. The police have now told us that that is incorrect—the train in fact left Luton station at 7.25 am. It did, however, arrive at Kings Cross at 8.23 am, as recorded in the official account. Although that does not appear to affect anything else in the official account, it is nevertheless an error, which is why I report it to the House. I can understand why this may be of concern to some. I have asked the police, as Members would expect, for a full report on how that discrepancy came about. I will ensure that the official account is amended and will write to the survivors and to the families of the victims on this matter.

I want to take my right hon. Friend back to what he said about the lessons that we have learned from 7/7. Is he considering making one particular lesson an important part of the development of our relationship with our Muslim community and other ethnic communities in Great Britain: that we have for many years underestimated, and as a consequence under-used, their language capabilities? The Muslim community speak Farsi and Dari and other languages whose speakers are in scarce supply, and it could offer our security services a rich source of support.

Our intelligence and security agencies are indeed looking at that issue. One difficulty in using our resources, however vastly they are expanding, is that they have to be converted into personnel with such skills.

I return to the point that I was making, and making at some length. I do so because it is important that we ensure that everyone in this country understands that intelligence is not an exact science. It is not like reading a spy novel. Piecing together intelligence is more like trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle that has no picture, many pieces missing and no pieces with a straight edge, and without knowing how many pieces one should have or whether the existing pieces are all from the same puzzle. Just to complicate completing that puzzle, one has to do so against the clock, with additional pieces being thrown helpfully in one’s direction by friends, and some intentionally misleading pieces being thrown by one’s enemies. That is a fuller description of the process of constructing an assessment of threat and intelligence than would normally be gained from some reports in some of our popular press or from novels.

That is the nature of the task that we set the dedicated and talented people who serve in our intelligence services. The most remarkable thing is that, more often than not, they succeed against all the odds in putting together significant parts of the puzzle in a way that makes sense of the bigger picture. That saves lives, for which we ought to be grateful. It has done so many times before the 7 July attacks, and will continue to do so. That is the most important return of all on the investments about which Opposition Members have asked me.

All those difficulties have always existed, but they are now more challenging than ever. They have become larger and more difficult with the emergence of global terrorism. For nearly half a century after the end of the second world war, our intelligence agencies focused on fighting the cold war. From the late 1960s onwards, they played an important role in a conflict within the United Kingdom, in Northern Ireland. Nowadays, their primary focus is on the international terrorism of al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-inspired groups.

As well as bearing in mind the normal difficulties affecting intelligence, we should recognise how much more challenging today’s actions are than what went before. Today’s enemy is unfettered by any sense of international convention, legality or even morality. Indeed, it is spurred on by a perverse perception of morality to achieve an even greater extent of civilian carnage. It uses methods of which we would not have conceived even a short time ago.

Moreover, the form of today’s enemy has changed. In the past, we faced a foe with a structure. We knew the structure of the Soviet infantry and we often knew the structure of an active service unit of the Provisional IRA, along with its commander. We either knew the names of those involved, or were aware of an intelligence gap that needed to be filled.

Not only did our former foe have a structure, but that structure was fairly static and unchanging. When it comes to al-Qaeda and the like, we face an enemy that is structured only loosely, if at all, and comprises numerous largely autonomous groups acting outside any recognisable chain of command. Nor do those groups have a permanent base from which to operate. All that makes the job of our intelligence services much harder than it was before.

Today’s terrorist is also helped by the ease of modern transport and communications. The internet and cheap mass travel have created a global village that is home to the global terrorist. All that makes life easier for the terrorists and harder for those who seek to counter them.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the earlier threat during the cold war. Can he reassure us that he has the appropriate contacts with our former foes in the eastern bloc whom we now aspire to have as friends and that we are making good use of their extensive intelligence-gathering facilities? Can he establish those facts through whatever channels he considers appropriate?

We have those contacts. Some, of course, are in the European Union. Some are in NATO. Others, such as Russia, are in partnership with NATO through partnership for peace or the NATO-Russian Permanent Joint Council. As well as having those military links, we try—as far as is possible, practical and sensible—to maintain an interchange and co-operation on intelligence matters. There is a reason for that. As I said yesterday, the terrorist threat faces us all. It is not a clash of civilisations, but a clash of evil terrorists against civilisation. Whatever differences we have with most of the great powers of the world, they are overcome by the common threat that we face, and the common awareness that we must face it together. We certainly do that.

I have given way to the hon. Gentleman already. If he does not allow me to make some progress, Members will legitimately claim that I have spoken for too long.

I saw that coming.

I was explaining all the elements that make the terrorist’s unfettered intention of mass destruction more difficult too cope with than ever before. One essential element of threat is intention. To match that unfettered destructive intent, modern science has, tragically, also offered a potential for almost unlimited destructive capability, the other essential element of threat.

The means of mass destruction have been around for quite a while, but when they are linked with unfettered intention, unconstrained by conventional legality and morality, and with unlimited destructive capacity, we begin to see the size of the new threat that we face. We do not face that threat alone, of course: attacks in places as far apart as Bali, New York, Egypt, east Africa, Madrid and—only this afternoon—Mumbai show, if any illustration is needed, that no community or city is immune. The director general of the Security Service, speaking to her counterparts in the Netherlands last year, pointed out that, as the threat is global, protecting our friends is also a way of protecting ourselves. That is, I think, the point made by the hon. Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick).

We must, and do, work closely with other countries, and with their intelligence and law enforcement agencies, in combating the terrorist threat. It is essential for us to think globally as well as acting locally. The plain fact is that a snippet of intelligence, whether it is gathered in Kirkuk or Kabul, can lead directly to action here on our streets to prevent an atrocity. That is the nature and extent of global terrorism, and that is the global response that we need.

The Home Secretary has spoken of our relationships with other Governments in the fight against al-Qaeda. How central to our fight against al-Qaeda is our current relationship with the Government of Pakistan?

It is extremely important, because of our ties in history and Commonwealth, because of the number of people with a Pakistani background in this country and because of Pakistan’s proximity to some of the most difficult parts of the world in which international terrorists are operating. Afghanistan sits next to the western and north-western territories of Pakistan. All that means that we must work internationally in Afghanistan. We must work closely with President Musharraf and his services there, and we must also deal with domestic problems here, or indeed in Pakistan. We have received a great deal of support from President Musharraf. I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting him last year to discuss a range of issues, and I cannot overestimate the importance of our relationship with Pakistan when it comes to these matters.

I had several other pages to which to refer and several other issues to raise, but as I see that my right hon. Friend at the other Dispatch Box, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) is eager to speak, and as I may have spoken for a little longer than I should have yesterday, I am more than willing to end my speech now. Perhaps I can deal with the other matters by responding to questions later—and the Minister for the Middle East will wind up the debate.

Let me end by saying that, however much we rely on our intelligence and security agencies, as we should, we ought to remember—as I am sure we do—that defeating terrorism is not simply a job for the Government, the security agencies or the police. Just as the intelligence and security agencies work on behalf of the whole community, the whole community must be involved in defeating terrorism. Given the unity and endurance that have seen our people through so many difficult times in the past, I believe that terrorism will ultimately be defeated. But the struggle will be long and hard and wide and deep, and in the midst of that we will rely more than ever on the men and women who work so hard and in such a dedicated fashion in our intelligence and security services.