Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee faces a serious challenge in ensuring its credibility, after an unprecedented wait for its formation along with the delay in publishing its Russia report.
That has raised concerns that it could set-back oversight in the UK after an often-troubled journey over the quarter of a century since the committee was first created in 1994.
Questions about its effectiveness have hovered around it thanks to questions over its membership and its ability to prise real accountability out of an often-reluctant secret state.
The delay since the 2019 election in creating a committee is far longer than seen previously and has raised questions about whether the government is seeking to create a more pliant body. The issue of membership had been problematic in the past.
One person who has sat on the committee describes membership as often having been treated as a form of “occupational therapy” for ex-ministers from both Labour and Conservative governments, a way of giving them something to do and easing the blow of losing office.
In the past, that fed into a sense the ISC was a group of the great and the good who could be trusted – including trusted not to be too difficult.
The committee had a particularly difficult period in the 2000s.
It looked at the evidence behind the claim Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But its report was thin and it took the Butler Inquiry to provide real answers.
A similar problem came with a report into the 7 July 2005 attacks and whether MI5 had missed opportunities to stop it.
The committee had not seen crucial evidence and had to go back and try again.
But the most problematic issue has been the complicity of British intelligence in US rendition and torture of terrorist suspects. The ISC’s initial inquiries failed abjectly to get to the bottom of events.
Most embarrassingly, it did not even appear to know of one major case involving MI6 and Libya until the fall of Gaddafi led to files revealing the operation being unearthed.
This was not all the ISC’s fault. It came about because MI6 failed to disclose the details when asked what it knew.
But it spoke to a criticism that the committee lacked teeth and simply saw what the intelligence agencies wanted it to see. The issue proved to be a tipping point.
In order to address the credibility gap, the ISC was given new powers in a 2013 act which beefed up its powers and remit.
After that, it began to improve its reputation and credibility with a series of tougher reports.
Now there are fears that the oversight the system relies on is simply not there.
“It was a fundamental part of the deal when the intelligence agencies got more intrusive powers to combat terrorism that at the same time Parliament got stronger powers of oversight,” Lord Peter Ricketts who was National Security Adviser between 2010 and 2012 told the BBC.
“That’s how we preserve the balance between liberty and security. But the deal falls apart if the government drag their feet on setting up the ISC to exercise that oversight.”
In the past five years, there has been friction with both the government and the intelligence agencies, including over calling witnesses on torture, but a degree of friction is what you would expect from robust rather than cosy oversight (and is still nothing like the tension the US Senate’s oversight committee had with the CIA over torture).
The intelligence agencies occasionally complain about its work but most on the inside also recognise the value of at least a perception of rigorous oversight.
Most of the friction has not been with the spy agencies but with the Cabinet Office and Downing Street.
The ISC is supposed to have a formal meeting with the prime minister once a year in the Cabinet Room when its annual report is discussed. But no collective meeting with the PM has taken place since 2015, those who have served on the committee say.
Unlike other select committees, the ISC reports directly to the prime minister and that has created particular tension since it gives Downing Street some sway over what is censored in any report on grounds of national security and over the timing of any release.
In the case of the Russia Report that has proved particularly controversial.
The report was commissioned amid concerns of Russian interference in UK political life and was supposed to look at espionage and influence.
The report was completed in March 2019 and an agreed text was sent to the prime minister. But then nothing happened.
Then-chairman Dominic Grieve said there was no reason the report could not have been released before the December general election and a date was identified in late October.
But the report never saw the light of day.
The failure to do so raised questions as to whether it was because the report contained details that could be embarrassing to the Conservative Party, such as donations from Russian businesspeople.
But the report is thought to be mildly embarrassing rather than explosive.
Other observers wonder if the delay was more due to a fit of pique from Downing Street against Dominic Grieve who had the Conservative whip withdrawn over his opposition to Brexit.
Boris Johnson’s top adviser Dominic Cummings was said to be in an “incandescent rage” at Mr Grieve with Downing Street turning the report’s release into a trial of strength, with one person on the inside describing the story of the delay as “The Tale of Two Dominics”.
As a new committee is formed, the report could be out of date. Many of the evidence sessions took place a year and a half ago.
In theory the new committee could start again, hold new hearings to update the report, edit the existing text or even junk it altogether.
But the latter option may cause an even greater outcry than the long delay.
The issue of when the report comes out and in what form will now be a key test of credibility.
But it is not likely to be the last test for the ISC to see whether it can provide parliament and the public that there is real oversight over the UK’s spies.