Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Cloth Ears

A bit of a sleeper story this - so far at least - Paul Murphy to head the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee.

This is a very strange choice and is quite likely to infuriate even the most mildly reform-minded. For those who are not well versed in British domestic politics, Paul Murphy was a member of Tony Blair's cabinet until all of thrity-two seconds ago.

The debate over what, if anything, needs to change within the British intelligence community in the wake of Iraq is ongoing but there have been a couple of stances that have acquired, in my experience, near universal acceptance. The first is that all future heads of the JIC should be very senior professionals in their last working post. The second is that the Intel and Security Committee needs to be distanced further from the government than it is at present in order to increase its "teeth" and provide it with greater credibility than it has at the moment.

The appointment of Paul Murphy is a retrograde step that flies in the face of widespread expert opinion and general consensus and which will be seen - understandably - to consolidate, not weaken, the executive's control over the committee.

Downing Street is trying to assert precedent as a defence by noting that the previous Committee chairman, Ann Taylor, was a Labour Chief Whip. This is true but disingenuous, as it ignores that fact that Taylor's appointment at the time was both controversial and unpopular and was generally seen as being overly political - and that was before Iraq.

This is not the first controversial appointment made by Downing Street since the Iraq War. JIC Chairman Sir John Scarlett was subsequently appointed to replace Sir Richard Dearlove as the new C, a move which raised a lot of eyebrows not merely within the Westminster village but within the security establishment itself.

It seems to me that there was better reason to appoint Scarlett as the new C - he was one of the finest case officers of the Cold War and, until Iraq, had an incredibly distinguished career - in spite of the fact that in appearance terms (which aren't everything but do count - trust and credibility are extremely important in this area) it looked bad than there is to appoint Murphy. In Murphy's case it appears to be a straight political shunt. At its most benign it's simply a rather tactless poitical payoff, at worst it's a serious attempt by Downing Street to tighten its control over the machinery.

I suspect there will be a substantial number of veins throbbing in foreheads within the security community tonight.

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