The revelations by former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden revelations in the Guardian showed the most catastrophic secret accretion of power by the British state in peacetime history, yet the reaction in Britain — the island that invented liberty under the law — has been beyond parody. The three lines of defense of British freedoms — the press, parliament and the law — have so far bent the knee to the secret state.
Newspapers that are meant to defend freedom have argued instead for the investigation of the Guardian, while the House of Commons has proved itself an overblown electoral college from which the executive is selected, rather than an independent legislature with clout to hold ministers to account.
The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ — the intelligence agency responsible for providing signals intelligence) has the capacity to scoop up and store the e-mail and voice traffic of the entire population of Britain, regardless of whether they are suspects or have ever committed any crime. GCHQ says it only looks at the suspect messages, but what are its checks? Given its inability to keep its own secrets, how credibly can it promise to keep those of others?
END OF PRIVACY
The invasion of privacy is breathtaking. The defense that you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide is as outrageous as it was when made by the totalitarian states. Citizens may — for good or bad reasons — want their activity to be private without in any way being illegal. Privacy matters.
Not only were the British Cabinet and National Security Council, which oversees all issues related to the UK’s security, not told of this program, neither was the committee set up to scrutinize the communications data bill (proposed by the Home Office to take the same police powers that GCHQ already exercised). We know of the Home Office’s disingenuous deception from a pair of former chief whips — the Conservatives’ David Maclean (now Lord Blencathra) and Labour’s Nick Brown. These are not lightweight players and they were shocked.
Where were the watchdogs? After huffing and puffing about how everything was in order, the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee has at last announced an inquiry. We can write its conclusions. It will give GCHQ a clean bill of health and argue for some modest improvements in controls.
How do I know? Look at the composition of the committee, which is handpicked by the prime minister and only rubberstamped by the Commons. All its MPs are paid-up members of the security establishment. Former British foreign minister Sir Malcolm Rifkind is chairman, even though he had executive responsibility for the agency he is now overseeing when he was minister.
The Home Affairs Select Committee under chairman Keith Vaz has succumbed to pressure from rightwing Conservative Party MPs to investigate not the disastrous state invasion of privacy, but the behavior of the Guardian in bringing it to people’s attention. And the Joint Committee on Human Rights — which includes peers (members of the UK’s system of honors) as well as MPs — has stayed bizarrely silent even though state aggrandizement at the expense of individual freedom falls squarely in its remit.
Surely the first question is who signed off this program? I discount the possibility that GCHQ went rogue. Its head at the time, Sir David Pepper, was a bureaucratic stickler. Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary in charge of intelligence Sir David Omand would also have insisted on ministerial sign-off.