The nation was agog today as Britain’s spymasters were summoned to parliament. The heads of MI5 and MI6, along with the boss of GCHQ, were grilled about the ethics and practice of counter-terrorism. It was a 2 pm kick-off but the session got underway at 2.02 pm in real time. A tag on the TV feed said, ‘Two minute delay’. The idea was to prevent the masters of international espionage from blurting out vital secrets on live television. Theatrical nonsense, of course. But it added a frisson of Cold War glamour to proceedings. And it gave a lift to the ratings which were already enjoying a welcome boost thanks to the thousands of Al Q’aeda suicidalists tuning in from failed states across the middle-east. Many of these Islamists haven’t even paid their TV licences.
The top spies didn’t look like spies. They were more like politicians in their crisp suits and November poppies. But then they’re supposed to blend in. Andrew Parker, head of MI6, could be the chair of the London Labour party. He has a big brainy head, and square adman’s glasses and he’s full of strategic thoughts and smart phrases. On his far side sat Iain Lobban (GCHQ) who has a pink, narrow skull and quick, anxious eyes. He’s clearly not used to public appearances. A chief whip.
And in between these two sat the well-coiffed splendour of John Sawers. The multi-lingual boss of MI6, with his JFK looks and silvery tongue – he talked a lot and said very little – could easily serve as Foreign Secretary. Failing that, he wouldn’t do badly in charge of Debenhams.
The inquisition was led by committee chairman Malcolm Rifkind, escorted by Ming Campbell, Robin Butler, and a few other defunct warships.