The head of the UK’s spy watchdog, which oversees the work of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, has been ordered to give public evidence on the agencies' conduct.
Sir Mark Waller serves as the intelligence services commissioner, having been appointed by prime minister David Cameron to ensure spy agencies act within legal boundaries.
However, Waller recently refused to attend a hearing by the Home Affairs Committee on the UK’s anti-terrorism efforts, which would include discussions on programmes such as PRISM, Tempora and Optic Nerve.
“I am afraid I remain of the view that it would not be appropriate for me to do so [attend],” he said in a letter on 18 February.
He said he would be unable to share much information, given the nature of his role, and instead directed the committee to a 2012 report, released before the Snowden files came to light.
However, committee chair Keith Vaz MP, said Waller must submit to parliamentary scrutiny and has ordered Waller to attend the session on 18 March.
“While the information in this report is useful to the Committee, effective parliamentary scrutiny requires the opportunity to ask questions and receive full answers,” Vaz said.
“We have therefore taken the unusual step of summoning Sir Mark. This happens only very rarely, where an essential witness declines to appear in response to an invitation. Indeed, it is the only time that this committee has summoned a witness in this parliament.”
It is the first time the committee has exercised this power during this parliament.
The need to force Waller to appear and give evidence sheds new light on the struggle within government to get to the heart of the spying and security work that is being carried out by the UK’s spy agencies.
The timing of the letter is relevant as it comes amid revelations that the UK conducted a huge webcam-spying programme, which gathered images of millions of web users without their knowledge.
To date the UK’s spy agencies have claimed everything they did was within the law and prior reports into their conduct have cleared them of any wrongdoing.
However, many are outraged by the extent of the surveillance that has been conducted, with one MP claiming it "exceeded even the worst Orwellian nightmares".
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