Lawmakers: UK spies need stronger oversight

AP News
Posted: May 08, 2014 7:04 PM

LONDON (AP) — A panel of British lawmakers says the system for scrutinizing the country's spies is stuck in the 20th-century world of John Le Carre's fiction rather than the 21st-century age of online surveillance and cyber-espionage.

Parliament's Home Affairs Select Committee said Friday in a report on counterterrorism that the parliamentary body which oversees Britain's MI5, MI6 and GCHQ intelligence agencies should be elected and led by a lawmaker from the opposition rather than the governing party.

The current chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee is Malcolm Rifkind, a former foreign minister and a member of the governing Conservatives.

"The current system of oversight is designed to scrutinize the work of George Smiley (Le Carre's fictional spymaster), not the 21st-century reality of the security and intelligence services," said Home Affairs committee chairman Keith Vaz. "The agencies are at the cutting edge of sophistication and are owed an equally refined system of democratic scrutiny."

Civil liberties groups have called for tougher scrutiny of Britain's intelligence services after Edward Snowden's revelations about the vast scale of electronic snooping by the U.S. National Security Agency and its British counterpart, GCHQ.

They say British officials have failed to take Snowden's revelations as seriously as authorities in the U.S., where the Obama administration has asked Congress to pass tougher privacy laws.

The report also said Britain faced a grave terrorist threat from Islamic militant groups and advised the government to set up a program to follow up with everyone returning to Britain who is suspected of fighting in Syria.

Police believe several hundred British citizens have gone to Syria to fight alongside Islamist militant groups against Syrian President Bashar Assad's government.

"Stopping British men and women going to become foreign fighters, in Syria and other theatres of conflict, and engaging with them when they return is vital to avoid endangering the security of the U.K.," Vaz said.