The Daily Star
Monday, November 18 2013
by Michael Glackin
It was billed as a historic milestone in parliamentary sovereignty and oversight when the United Kingdom’s spy chiefs appeared before a committee of British parliamentarians and peers over a week ago. However, all it revealed was that Parliament hadn’t a clue what the spooks were up to, and if the committee’s appallingly timid questioning of the spymasters was anything to go by, they never will. The Intelligence and Security Committee is the body charged with oversight of the intelligence services. The spooks were called before it following American whistleblower Edward Snowden’s claims that American and British mass surveillance programs included snooping on the emails of millions of ordinary citizens.
During the 90-minute hearing, MI5 boss Andrew Parker, MI6 chief Sir John Sawers, and Sir Iain Lobban, the director of GCHQ, the British signals intelligence agency, dismissed claims that their monitoring of online and telephone data was excessive, and denied long-standing allegations that British intelligence had been complicit in torture. All without a murmur of dissent from the committee tasked with scrutinizing their activities.
It is extraordinary that no one even mentioned GCHQ’s Tempora program, which allows the agency to hoover up vast amounts of data from cables carrying internet traffic in and out of the country. The information is thoroughly analyzed and then shared with GCHQ’s counterpart in the United States, the National Security Agency.
Considering that neither senior ministers nor the government’s National Security Council, which oversees intelligence coordination and is chaired by Prime Minister David Cameron, were aware of Tempora’s existence before Snowden’s leaks, one would have thought the committee would have been curious to find out more.
Someone, probably one of the three people before the committee, decided that the data trawling did not need explicit parliamentary, or it seems government, approval. Surely it would have been worth asking how that happened? At least in Washington after Snowden’s revelations, President Barack Obama and Congress acknowledged that democratic and judicial oversight had broken down.
When the committee gently asked for examples of the 34 terror plots the spymasters said they had thwarted since the July 7, 2005, bombings in London, or for examples of the damage they claimed Snowden’s leaks had caused to their operations, the spooks replied they could only provide examples in private.
Much of what intelligence agencies do cannot be allowed into the public domain. But this insistence on secrecy amid all we know from Snowden had a distinctly hollow sound to it. It highlighted the unaccountable power that GCHQ, with America’s NSA, has accumulated to invade privacy and hide its activities from democratic oversight by claiming this is necessary for national security.
Sawers, who before heading MI6 served as British ambassador to Egypt and briefly as a special envoy to Iraq in 2003, even took a laughable swipe at the newspaper reporting Snowden’s leaks: “It is clear that our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee and Al-Qaeda is lapping it up.”
One suspects Al-Qaeda is actually lapping up how Sawers and his colleagues allowed a terror suspect under 24-hour surveillance evade his minders last week by slipping into a burka and wandering off in broad daylight through the streets of central London.
Al-Qaeda and other terror groups have already lapped up the failure to find weapons of mass destruction that British intelligence agencies insisted the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein possessed – the reason Parliament supported the Iraq invasion, which arguably has done more to unleash global terrorism than any other.
No doubt terror groups also lapped up what the government called a “serious” security breach a few years ago when an intelligence official lost top-secret documents containing the latest intelligence on Al-Qaeda. The documents were eventually found by a member of the public on a busy commuter train.
There was probably much laughter in the Tora Bora mountains when Sawers’ wife posted details about his personal life on her Facebook page, including photographs of him frolicking around in a pair of skimpy swimming trunks on his holidays. His wife had few restrictions on her Facebook account, which meant that images of the head of the U.K.’s secret service were visible worldwide.
Oddly, Sawers recently gave a rare speech in which he defended the crucial role of secrecy in keeping us all safe. And while the spooks were insisting on privacy again last week, it might have been pertinent to ask why a lowly NSA contractor such as Snowden was among more than 850,000 U.S. staff given access to GCHQ’s secret files. Did GCHQ realize how insecure and open the U.S. system was that it enabled Snowden to leak all the information so easily?
Compare the treatment of the spymasters and the British government’s failure to properly investigate Snowden’s claims with what is going on at London’s Old Bailey, the country’s highest criminal court. A group of journalists and others who worked for Rupert Murdoch’s now defunct newspaper The News of the World are on trial, accused of ordering, or conspiring in, the hacking of the telephone calls of celebrities, politicians and crime victims.
Around $40 million of British taxpayers’ money has been spent on a public inquiry and several police investigations into phone hacking by newspapers culminating in this high-profile trial. Meanwhile the amount the government has spent investigating Snowden’s allegations amounts to a few thousand pounds and some softball questions from a committee that appeared to be in awe of those it is charged with scrutinizing.
Much of what those journalists did is indefensible – the hacking of a 13-year-old murder victim’s phone among them – but which is the bigger crime or threat to civil liberties? Snowden’s revelations dwarf the phone-hacking activities of journalists. Thanks to Snowden we know that the U.S. has been systematically tapping the phones of its allies, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with GCHQ providing a helping hand.
It has even been reported that United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s phone was hacked by the NSA ahead of a meeting Obama at the White House this year. How does this protect our security?
The defense of the spymasters for programs such as Tempora is that they only targeted those involved in terrorism and “serious crime.” The hacking of Merkel’s and Ban’s phones, among others, betrays the lie.
The committee should have shown less deference to the spooks. Their demand for less publicity, lest accountability harm British and Western security, is increasingly threadbare. These are, after all, the same people who failed to foresee the end of the Cold War, the 9/11 attacks, and the Arab Spring. They have much to account for.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Lebanese newspaper THE DAILY STAR. This article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 18, 2013, on page 7.