Thursday, November 07, 2013

Shhh... It's a Secret....

Those of you who feel they are reading the end rather than the beginning of this column should know there is a two minute time delay on it so you may already have finished. 

This delay has been imposed to bring it into line with the first ever appearance in public of C, A, and B, the heads of Britain's, from today, not-quite-so-secret services.

The identity of C has, of course, been known to all of us since Ian Fleming introduced us to James Bond. The Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, known as "C" because he is The Chief, is presently Sir John Sawers - not Dame Judi Dench as some think.  His organisation, as befits something which is secret, is not known as the SIS but MI6.

Appearing with him was Mr Andrew Parker, Director General of the Security Service of whom it is not known if he is known as "A" or "D" or just plain Andy. But, his organisation, adopting the same disguise as its neighbour, is - thankfully - never called the SS, instead being known as MI5.

Which left just the last member of the trio, Sir Iain Lobban, Director of the Government Communications Headquarters, GCHQ. Unlike the others, Sir Iain's organisation is confusingly known as GCHQ although what he is known as is obviously secret. What is known is he has never, ever, been seen in public before; assumingly spending the last 30 years wandering around Cheltenham with a paper bag over his head.

But, they were all out in the open this afternoon and facing, if not quite Smersh, the inquisitors of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament. Chief among them, Tory MP and former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, one-time Edinburgh member of parliament forced to flee to Kensington and Chelsea.

Sir Malcolm is, as befits someone who looks like an undertaker's apprentice, a dour man bringing needed seriousness to a committee which includes Hazel Blears and a couple of Lords. The two minute time-delay was being imposed, it was explained, in case anybody said anything secret in a hearing about secrets. It would apply to anybody watching it on the television but those in the room would obviously have to go out of the room and come back two minutes later to impose their own delay.

Needless to say, the committee meeting started two minutes late - or maybe it didn't.

The hearing could not have come at a better time since it is only weeks since the Guardian revealed that American spies have been spying on everybody, everywhere -  and that any gaps have been plugged up by their British cousins (see above) who also may have been spying on us.

"C", someone you immediately realised you wouldn't want to get the wrong side of, kicked off for the spooks. He proceeded to reveal not very much, in a very nice voice, followed by his burlier pal Andy from MI5 who clearly weighs his words in grams rather than ounces.

Last but not least, as the Guardian would say, it was the turn of GCHQ, a blueish man in a blue suit with a blue shirt and blue tie. Basically it was bollocks to accuse them of acting improperly, at any time, at any place they told a succession of questioners.

"Secret did not mean sinister", said "C" as the two beefy men behind him  maintained their impression of gargoyles. Asked about the guy who'd done a bunk in a burqa, Andy said casually "several thousand" home-growners actively support violent extremism.

All was going well until Sir Malc asked GCHQ why he was collecting information on us.
It was all to do with hayfields, haystacks and needles, he said, and he couldn't say more because it was a secret. Anyway, he said comfortingly, GCHQ did not listen to "the majority of calls", just those involving hay.

But, what hadn't helped at all was the recent revelations from Edward Snowden, currently seeking asylum with President Putin. One secret he was prepared to reveal was overhearing terrorists happily discussing how to dodge the spooks having read the Snowden stories.

He could not tell us how he knew, because it was a secret, but he would tell the MP's in secret because they could keep a secret,

"Of course we don't spy on everyone," said "C" reassuringly, although E. Snowden Esq. should't hold his breath.

And then suddenly it was over and it was late.

Can't tell you why. It must be a secret.