Interview: Sir Malcolm Rifkind, chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, on featuring in the James Bond film Skyfall, his memories of Baroness Thatcher, and why internet firms must help spies catch terrorists from Islamic State
When Britain’s intelligence agencies launch a top-secret operation of critical national importance, a handful of people in Whitehall must be told, wherever they are, at whatever hour of day or night.
Aside from the Prime Minister, who is personally responsible for national security, the Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary may be involved.
So too will Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). This group of nine senior MPs and peers serve as the eyes and ears of Parliament – and the wider public – on the secret activities of MI5, MI6 and the government’s listening station, GCHQ.
During a Cabinet career that began in the Cold War under Margaret Thatcher, Sir Malcolm held two senior posts in which he relied on secret intelligence every day.
“When I was foreign secretary and defence secretary, I used ‘the product’,” he says, in a phrase straight from the novels of John Le Carre.
“Now my main responsibility is how the information is obtained and the constraints upon the success in doing so. It is fascinating.”
His committee is no Westminster talking shop for MPs who like the sound of their own voices.
Much of its work occurs not just in private, but in secrecy and silence (its members are bound by the Official Secrets Act).
The committee regularly requires MI5, MI6 and GCHQ to provide highly classified details of their activities and visits the agencies’ offices to watch in person as operations unfold.
Then, when a crisis comes, Sir Malcolm finds himself on the end of a phone call summoning him to a secret briefing.
“If something very suddenly happens or is about to happen, I as chairman will get a call or message from the head of the relevant agency, saying ‘Chairman, you might like to know this is happening.’”
Sir Malcolm, 68, who with his wife Edith has two grown up children – Caroline and the journalist Hugo Rifkind – is one of Westminster’s most experienced and respected operators. His knowledge of Whitehall and the intelligence-gathering structures of the British state is extensive.
In his view, there is no reason to think the UK is safe from the threat of the kind of gun attack that caused carnage in Paris at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher supermarket.
“You cannot exclude any of these possibilities. Charlie Hebdo was operating from an office which had police protection. You simply cannot say that some comparable target in London, Rome, Berlin or Madrid will not be attempted.
“Whether they succeed or not depends on several things.”
Not least, the chances of identifying the threat before it happens, which lies at the heart of the row over whether the so-called “snooper’s charter” laws are necessary.
“If as we all accept, the problem is international jihadi terrorism, how do international terrorists communicate with each other? They communicate by the internet, by email, by social messaging. That’s the world we live in,” Sir Malcolm says.
As party leaders argue over the right response to the terrorist threat, he is clear that the mounting danger from hundreds of jihadists returning home to Britain from Iraq and Syria means the agencies must be able to intercept private communications over the internet as well as data to trace mobile phone calls.
Last year, Sir Malcolm’s committee found that Facebook, the social networking website, held information that Michael Adebowale was planning to attack a soldier in the street. Four months later, in May 2013, he and Michael Adebolajo hacked Fusilier Lee Rigby to death in Woolwich. The murder could have been prevented if the information had been passed from Facebook to the authorities.
Sir Malcolm strongly supports a legal requirement – dubbed the “snoopers’ charter” law by Nick Clegg and others – for mobile phone companies to retain records of calls, emails and internet messages for intelligence agencies to use if needed.
“We concluded that that was justifiable and necessary,” he says.
“Neither MI6 nor MI5 nor GCHQ can retain indefinitely large amounts of information. What we think they ought to be able to do if they get a warrant from the Secretary of State, or the relevant permission that is required, is get access to it, on a case by case basis.”
PRIVACY OR SECURITY?
Intelligence agencies are also struggling as a result of the activities of Edward Snowden, who revealed the mass surveillance techniques of America’s National Security Agency, as well as GCHQ, to devastating effect in 2013.
A new generation of highly encrypted phone and computer systems has now emerged to satisfy consumers fearful of having their phones and emails hacked. Security chiefs fear that terrorists, too, can now more easily hide.
Yet one of the ISC‘s most important roles is to try to reassure the public that the spies are not out of control, as Snowden claimed, Sir Malcolm says.
“Hacking into emails, or listening to other people’s conversations, or bugging a house or building – these are serious powers in a democracy and therefore you need to have oversight.”
Does he think Snowden did the world a service by exposing the extent of state snooping in the West?
“I don’t think he is a whistleblower,” he says. “Snowden stole – and I use the word explicitly – he stole a million highly classified documents, top secret documents.
“And he hands them over to The Guardian or other newspapers. Now that is not whistleblowing. That is a political act. It is a criminal act as well but it was essentially an expression of his own political ideology and I don’t think he deserves sympathy.”
The ISC will be publishing a major new report within weeks on the balance between security and privacy in the internet age, an investigation which developed in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations.
Sir Malcolm reveals that it will propose a major overhaul of the law underpinning the operations of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ to take account of the “tremendous changes in technology” over the past 30 years.
It also seems likely to demand an unprecedented new culture of public transparency. All parties will be expected to endorse the committee’s plan.
“There will be a lot of recommendations in our report,” he says. “There will be some very radical proposals with regard to both the legislation and the transparency requirements, which we will be putting to Parliament and to the government over the next month or so.”
Another report which Sir Malcolm wants to see published as soon as possible is Sir John Chilcot’s long-delayed verdict on his inquiry into the Iraq War.
“I think it’s awful that it’s not being published this side of the end of the parliament. I think it’s appalling.” One reason given for the delays has been that individuals facing criticism – believed to include Tony Blair – have been given a final opportunity to respond.
“That should be able to be done in weeks, not months,” Sir Malcolm says. “It is counterproductive. It is against the national interest to have a report of this kind hanging around for as long as it is.”
A veteran campaigner who first entered Parliament in 1974, Sir Malcolm, 68, was one of the highest profile Cabinet casualties to lose his seat in the Blair landslide of 1997. He insists that the Tories can win this year.
“If the Conservatives had been in power for three, four parliamentary terms, the public get bored of you,” he says. “But this is only one term. Normally a government is re-elected unless there is a reason not to.”
Mr Cameron stands to benefit too if the usual issues of the economy and the public’s choice of the best prime minister dominate the campaign, he says.
“All the analysis is that the public see David Cameron as someone who can handle the responsibilities of Prime Minister. He carries the burden on his shoulders very well. Fairly or unfairly, they don’t seem to take the same view of the Leader of the Opposition.”
So shouldn’t Mr Cameron seize his chance to go into the televised election debates and trounce Mr Miliband in front of millions of viewers?
“I’m not going to intervene in that particular matter,” says Sir Malcolm, ever alert to the danger of a word out of turn.
QUICKFIRE: RIFKIND ON RIFKIND
Favourite memory of Baroness Thatcher? “She was once asked, ‘do you believe in consensus?’ To our astonishment, she said, ‘Yes I do. There should be a consensus behind my convictions.’
Did she ever “handbag” you? “Once she started poking me in the ribs, literally. She said: ‘I remember, 1939, we went to war to save Poland. You weren’t even born yet.’ I said, ‘it’s not my fault.’ I got The Look.”
Favourite political satire? “Apart from Spitting Image? It has to be Yes, Minister. I am a devoted admirer of the original Yes, Minister. They were superb.”
James Bond or George Smiley? “Smiley. Bond is fantasy. It’s wonderful stuff and great fun but le Carre is much closer. You can feel the atmosphere there.”
Did you watch Skyfall, the most recent Bond film? “I am in it. Ralph Fiennes plays Mallory, the chairman of the ISC. I said I would have been perfectly happy to play myself – then I discovered he gets shot.”
Would you follow Fiennes’s character and take over as head of MI6? “I don’t think so. I assured the head of an agency once that I wasn’t after his job. I got a rictus smile.”
Favourite meal? “My wife always disapproves but if I get the opportunity I indulge in steak tartare. She is convinced this is extremely bad for me.”