I love a free country.
I relate this only due to Keith Vaz yesterday deciding to ask the same question of Alan Rusbridger during his appearance in front of the Home Affairs committee, although without also enquiring of his loyalty to the Queen, motherhood, apple pie and all that. Vaz's interjection clearly wasn't meant seriously, as much being a swipe against those who have accused the Guardian of treachery over the publication of the Snowden files as it was anything else, but it summed up the shallowness of the session while at the same time highlighting the undercurrent of threat manifest in the statements of the Conservative front bench. You can have a debate on the security services and how they've mastered the internet, it's just we'll be the ones to decide when that debate ends and when it's time for the stolen files to be turned over.
Having completely failed to provide any evidence of harm caused by the Guardian's articles, as almost everyone other than the securocrats has said they can't see how national security has been damaged (including the DA-Notice committee), those calling for a prosecution have had to change tack. In a brilliant example of not being able to see the wood for the trees, four members of the committee (Three Tory, one Labour) focused instead on how the Snowden files had been transferred to the New York Times and elsewhere, supposedly putting at risk the agents named in the documents. As section 58a of the Terrorism Act 2000 makes it an offence to publish or communicate any such information that might be useful to terrorists, Mark Reckless especially thought he had caught Rusbridger out. Quite apart from how, as Rusbridger tried to explain to him and the others, there haven't been any names released nor will there be so there isn't a breach of the law, the act provides a "reasonable excuse" defence. If the security services and the government want to make a case in court that the paper has not acted in the wider public interest, then they should bring it on.
It is after all just ever so slightly perverse to worry more about the Graun transferring heavily encrypted files either by FedEx, David Miranda (the password he had on a piece of paper was not to the files themselves, Rusbridger said, but to an index to the files, the encryption on which GCHQ has not been able to break) or to the New York Times than it is to be concerned at how 850,000 individuals in the United States had, or possibly still have access to the same material as Edward Snowden. Snowden wasn't even directly employed by the National Security Agency, rather by a contractor, and yet the same MPs grievously concerned that the Graun might have revealed the identities of GCHQ employees didn't seem to think this was worth worrying about. Is every single one of those people reliable, or is it possible there's others with allegiances far more inimical to the West's values than that of a former Ron Paul supporter? For all we know the files may have long been in the hands of the Chinese or Russians precisely because of the wide open access GCHQ was apparently happy with.
Michael Ellis for one was certain of the Graun's treachery. Not only had the paper revealed there was a LGBT group at GCHQ (as was openly stated on err, Stonewall's website), he also came right out and asked if Rusbridger would have revealed the existence of Enigma. Leaving aside the obvious existence of censorship during WW2 and the complete absence of any threat even slightly comparable to that of Nazi Germany today, it highlighted the inability to listen of some of those on the committee. Despite the protestations afterwards, the paper has communicated with both the US and UK governments as well as the security services and the DA-Notice committee before publishing each report, only not doing so before it splashed on the original GCHQ spying on the G20 story. If there had been any material about to be revealed which they believed could truly do damage on the scale of say, the existence of Enigma being revealed to the Germans, they would have said so. They have not.
Just as with the appearance of the spy chiefs before the ISC, having already been told precisely what they were going to be asked, much of the rhetoric is just to keep up appearances, and that probably goes for the Graun as well. It will however be interesting to see whether Andrew Parker does agree to give evidence in public before the committee, having been asked by Keith Vaz, and whether he will set out exactly how the Snowden revelations have affected the work of his agency. Some members of the committee might even enquire just how far the discussions have gone between GCHQ and the NSA over the massive sharing of their documents, and whether the fact the NSA has funded GCHQ to the tune of £100m over the past three years has anything to do with it. Or we might just get the equivalent of a punch to the face again.