The surveillance debate has reached the UK at last – or has it?

Andrew Parker’s speech and the media’s astonishing obvious reaction

So, this week the long-overdue debate on the surveillance capabilities of GCHQ finally kicked off in the UK.

On 8th October, MI5 Director General Andrew Parker addressed the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), defending GCHQ in his first speech since becoming head of MI5.

The reactions this has produced are quite alarming. Mostly because they seem to do little, as yet, to promote the kind of debate Britain should be having (and that Snowden and the Guardian have tried to encourage). That is, a debate about whether or not GSHQ spying should and can continue in the way it has, and about how legislation regarding the power of intelligence agencies may be in dire need of reform.

According to former Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne, neither the cabinet nor the National Security council were briefed on “GCHQ’s Tempora or the NSA’s Prism, or about their extraordinary capability to vacuum up and store personal emails, voice contact, social networking activity and even internet searches.”

Now, you can think of Huhne what you like, but he isn’t wrong when he says that “[t]his lack of information, and therefore accountability, is a warning that the supervision of our intelligence services needs […] updating […].”

In the US, the debate about the powers of the NSA is ongoing. Senator Ron Wyden, as one example, continues to ask the question of “whether NSA ever collected or made any plans to collect Americans’ cell site information in bulk” which as yet remains unanswered.

By contrast, in the UK, few such questions have been asked after four months of revelations and the debate that has erupted in the wake of Mr Parker’s speech was of a rather different nature.

Off went the Daily Mail, the Telegraph and the Times on what feels like a witch hunt of the Guardian and its editor, Alan Rusbridger.

Particularly, Mr Parker’s claim that “[i]t causes enormous damage to make public the reach and limits of GCHQ techniques. Such information hands the advantage to the terrorists. It is the gift they need to evade us and strike at will,” was read as a direct indictment of Edward Snowden and the Guardian for making sensitive information available to terrorists.

There are a couple of obvious problems both with Mr Parker’s claims (five of which are analysed by the Guardian here) and media reporting of his speech.

 

Problem #1: Unproven claims

The indictment that publication of information on the reach of surveillance gives an advantage to terrorists has been made time and again and it has been repeated ad nauseam by some of the media. Yet, much like others who have made similar claims, “Parker did not present any evidence to support this.” That’s because “[h]e can’t.”

Importantly though, Nick Hopkins reminds us that “those who doubt the claim cannot disprove it either.”

Yet, experts on intelligence “doubt the extent of the “gift” Parker describes.”

Take journalist and novelist John Lanchester who, in his excellent Guardian article, points to “the under-remarked fact that Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad didn’t even have a telephone line running into it. […] [T]he bad guys know very well that they have to be careful.”

Similarly, ex-MI6 chief Nigel Inkster last month played down the damage caused by the Snowden leaks.

“Al-Qaida leaders in the tribal areas of Pakistan had been “in the dark” for some time – in the sense that they had not used any form of electronic media that would “illuminate” their whereabouts, Inkster said.”

Security expert Bruce Schneier in the New York Times points out that “there’s nothing here that changes anything any potential terrorist would do or not do.”

Interestingly, Schneier also believes that “history will hail Snowden as a hero — his whistle-blowing exposed a surveillance state and a secrecy machine run amok” but he is “less optimistic” – and rightly so – “of how the present day will treat him, and hope[s] that the debate right now is less about the man and more about the government he exposed.”

I am not sure how justified the last hope is, especially in the UK. Not only has the debate kicked off with significant delay here (the first Snowden revelations were made four months ago in June).

It is also dismaying to watch that the debate prompted by Mr Parker’s statements seems to centre, once again, on Snowden, the Guardian and its reporting rather than the substance of the revelations.

 

Problem #2: Informed debate? Nonsense!

The Daily Mail in particular has taken the opportunity to – as Roy Greenslade has put it – launch a “multi-weapon assault on the Guardian”.

Reading the Daily Mail’s coverage of and commentary (more here) on the Guardian’s reporting, not to mention the attacks against its editor Alan Rusbridger, I find it very difficult not to agree with Mr Greenslade.

To quote from the Mail itself: “It is impossible to imagine a graver charge against a newspaper than that it has given succour to our country’s enemies and endangered all our lives by handing terrorists ‘the gift they need to evade us and strike at will’.

Now, if that (completely over-the-top) charge could be proven to hold any water, it would indeed be grave. Yet, I humbly refer the Mail and everyone else – again – to previous writing and commentary on other recent “aiding the enemy” charges, be it against Snowden, Chelsea Manning or the Guardian.

I should also like to point out that while the Mail and several others besides understand Mr Parker’s statements as an indictment of the Guardian’s “crimes” this is not actually what Mr Parker has said.

Note also the Mail’s repeated reference to its own distasteful and much criticised article on Ralph Miliband and how it then goes on to accuse the Guardian of much graver crimes: “[Ralph Miliband] fought for Britain in the war. And never once, as far as we are aware, did he give practical help to our enemies. Nor was he ever accused by the head of our security services of putting British lives at risk. Isn’t that a great deal more than can be said for the Guardian?”

Do you know what this is? Nonsense. And of the most alarming kind too because this is not about truth or falsehood or about the actual problem of indiscriminate surveillance.

It isn’t even about national security.

It is about the Mail taking the opportunity of lashing out at its “enemy”, the Guardian.

I find it alarming how readily the Mail has jumped at the opportunity of making Mr Parker’s remarks about itself (note the inflationary use of the pronoun “we” in the article) and its rivalry with the Guardian (turning it into a personal attack on Alan Rusbridger, no less).

Let us be clear here. We still have to see concrete examples of how exactly the revelations have damaged national security.

In direct response to Mr Parker’s claims, Clive Stafford Smith, the legal director of death row campaigners Reprieve said: “It must be said that there is nothing in the Guardian’s revelations that has been shown to help terrorists in the least, and Mr Parker did not give a single concrete example to demonstrate this.”

Similarly, the claim – repeated yet again – that Glenn Greenwald was threatening the UK when, following the detention of his partner at Heathrow, he said: “I will be far more aggressive in my reporting from now. I have many documents on England’s spy system. I think they will be sorry for what they did” has been corrected repeatedly.

To double check Glenn Greenwald’s more nuanced review of the incident (and several other important questions besides), allow me to refer you to a video of the Newsnight interview with him in which he eloquently and convincingly answers a number of important questions. (You will have heard many of them before but perhaps it is a good thing that these got addressed once again in a sensible way on UK national television).

The Mail conveniently ignores this. Why? Because their “journalism” is not about a reasonable discussion of the facts as we know them at all. Neither are insinuations that Edward Snowden “probably […] passed [his information] to Russia and China (he was earlier in Hong Kong), both of which powers are not very friendly to Britain.”

Rather than to start an informed debate, the Daily Mail, the Times and the Telegraph are repeating statements which are entirely “based on supposition”.

More than that, accusations like these also fail to take into account an important fact pointed out by Nick Hopkins: “Perhaps the Russians and the Chinese do now have the files. But if they have obtained them, they have managed a feat that has so far eluded the combined efforts of the British and American intelligence communities. Four months after this saga started, they still don’t know how many files Snowden took.”

 

Voices of reason?

John Kampfner, thankfully, represents one voice of reason.

He makes some excellent points about why Mr Parker is to be commended for “putting the spy agencies’ point of view” up for a long-needed discussion. Importantly, Kampfner also notes that “the actual words [Parker] made in his speech are more thoughtful and sober than the spin accompanying it that was regurgitated by several newspapers.”

What Kampfner also makes clear – and this is important and the Mail would do well to take note of it – is that “[i]t is one thing to reveal operational detail” (as the Guardian and Edward Snowden have been repeatedly accused of doing) but “it is quite another to put into the public domain the broad strategy – the remarkable revelation of the extent of the snooping that has taken place unbeknown not just to the public but to many of the politicians who are supposed to oversee the agencies” (which is what has actually happened).

“With so much at stake,” Kampfner writes, “one might reasonably (or naively) assume that, whatever their political hue, the media might work collaboratively in challenging the powerful.”

This weeks’ debate has shown once again that this isn’t the case. Many of the UK media have – yet again – “fail[ed] in [their] core function,” not even trying to demand a debate that is by now four months overdue.

Perhaps though, there is a glimmer of hope. As such, Dame Stella Rimington, a former MI5 chief, “acknowledged her old agency needed to be more transparent.”

David Cameron, the British Prime Minister “revealed he is open to suggestions about how the security services could be better governed”.

Mind you, Mr Cameron also said: “When you get newspapers who get hold of vast amounts of data and information that is effectively stolen information and they think it is OK to reveal this, I think they have to think about their responsibilities and are they helping to keep our country safe.”

Sadly, this is not exactly a progressive opinion and it reminds me a lot of the PM’s American counterpart, Barack Obama, belatedly welcoming a debate and greater oversight and then installing a review panel which consists mostly of intelligence insiders.

In the UK the debate is at the moment still dominated not so much by the substance of the leaks and the practices and oversight they call into question but by what seems to be the different factions of the press reaffirming their political alliances.

Perhaps once the Mail and miscellaneous have ceased their bashing of the Guardian, the real debate will follow.

Let us watch closely. The Guardian, for one, has a live feed here.

P.S.

In some good news: Edward Snowden has been visited by a delegation of whistleblowers – including Thomas Drake – and presented with the Sam Adams Award for Integrity and Ethics.

Also “In the coming weeks in Washington D.C., buses will be wrapped with large-size ads with a picture of Mr. Snowden accompanied by the words: Thank You Ed Snowden” – people can submit their own photos.

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