David Cameron has been criticised by senior MPs after he refused to allow parliament’s intelligence and security committee (ISC) unlimited access to the intelligence that led to recent drone strikes against Islamic State.
Harriet Harman, the former deputy leader of the Labour party, accused the prime minister of frustrating the work of the committee after he insisted that ministers would retain the right to withhold some intelligence.
The criticism by Harman, who is now chair of parliament’s joint committee on human rights, was echoed by the Tory chairman of the treasury select committee, Andrew Tyrie. The parliamentarians attacked the prime minister after a testy appearance before the Commons liaison committee – the body comprising the chairs of the select committees – at which he declined a series of requests to give MPs greater access to the decision-making process on drone strikes.
Harman highlighted the drone strike on 21 August last year that killed two Britons fighting with Isis in Syria. Reyaad Khan, a 21-year-old from Cardiff who featured in an Isis recruiting video, was the target of the strike.
Ruhul Amin, 26, another Briton, was among two Isis fighters killed in the attack on Raqqa. In her role at the time as acting Labour leader, Harman was briefed by the prime minister on the strike in September.
The ISC is being allowed to examine the intelligence that prompted the prime minister to authorise the strike. But under questioning from Tyrie, who chairs the liaison committee, Cameron said that ministers would retain the right to withhold some intelligence and that he would not allow the ISC to examine the military’s decision-making leading up to the drone strikes.
Asked by Tyrie if he would drop the power of ministers to block the release of intelligence, he said: “My instinctive answer would be no … You have to be incredibly careful with highly sensitive information, information that if revealed could result in somebody’s death.
“You are asking me, ‘Should the government have no hold-back on the intelligence it gives to the ISC?’ Instinctively, I would be very worried about that because there might be a piece of intelligence so sensitive that its release in any way could endanger the source.”
Tyrie said after the hearing: “On the basis of today’s evidence, the intelligence and security committee will not be able to do a thorough job. The prime minister should reconsider his decision to prevent the ISC from looking at information on the military aspects of the drone strikes. Unless he permits this, the ISC will be incapable of providing reassurance to parliament and the public that the strikes were both necessary and proportionate.”
Harman said: “The prime minister sought to give the impression today that he is allowing the ISC to scrutinise the targeted killing of Reyaad Khan in Syria in August. But under questioning from the liaison committee chair, Andrew Tyrie MP, he was forced to admit he is not allowing this scrutiny. It’s not acceptable that he is clearly frustrating the scrutiny work of the ISC who he appointed and who are all security-cleared.”
In his evidence session, the prime minister also admitted that there are not enough moderate opposition forces in Syria to help defeat Isis. Cameron had told parliament there were 70,000 forces “who do not belong to extremist groups” with whom allied forces can coordinate strikes against Isis. But the prime minister said on Tuesday: “If people want to say there aren’t enough opposition ground troops, I totally agree. They are not in all the right places. I couldn’t agree more. They are not the sort of people you bump into at a Liberal Democrat party conference. Correct. I would agree with all those assessments.”
Cameron also said that some of the moderate forces are hardline Islamists. “Yes, some of the opposition forces are Islamist, some of them are relatively hardline Islamist, and some of them are more what we would describe as more secular democrats. But there are groups like al-Nusrah front ... who we wouldn’t work with, we condemn.”
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