Wednesday, December 11, 2013 

Parker saved from having to stick his nose in.

Andrew "nosy" Parker, the head of MI5, will not then be giving evidence to the Home Affairs committee after all.  In what must rank as the most analogous instance of a grown man being got out of a potentially sticky situation by the equivalent of a note from his mum, Theresa May has decreed that for the chief spook to appear before another committee, albeit a select committee rather than a statutory one, would be to duplicate the ISC's work.  This is an interesting new innovation on the part of the coalition: apparently you can't have two inquiries into the same thing going on at the same time, unless of course the object of the inquiries is to try and get one over on the Labour party, in which case you can have innumerable different investigations into the Co-op Bank and Paul Flowers.  To be fair, it reminds just as much as Labour's position on a further inquiry into the Iraq war while troops were still in the country.  Once they were back home, then we could have the Chilcot inquiry.  Until then, and regardless of how in the past we'd managed to have inquiries into debacles in both WW1 and WW2 without damaging the mission, we couldn't possibly hold one.

You can at least see why Theresa May has "declined" the committee's request to call Parker.  What's the point of the ISC if the heads of the intelligence agencies can also be called to account by other, normal, parliamentary committees?  If the Home Affairs committee had been allowed to question Parker without first informing him of what they intended to ask, as the ISC did in its carefully stage managed session, then it would rather undermine the whole haven't we changed into tremendously open and answerable organisations narrative.  This doesn't explain however why security service heads have previously given evidence to the home affairs committee in private session without any such difficulties; what would be so different in doing so in public post the first ISC appearance?

Except, as was clear after Alan Rusbridger's appearance, the most pertinent question to ask of Parker is the one he doesn't have an answer to.  Both he and the government know full well there has been no real damage caused by the Edward Snowden revelations, except that is to their reputations and the "oversight" regime.  While there was no guarantee Parker would have expanded on his and his fellow spooks' answer to the ISC that they could only go into specifics in closed session, it would have been embarrassing to say the least to have to repeat his response without doing so.  The committee could also have asked some of the questions the ISC didn't, and Parker would additionally have had to confront the increasing number of those demanding reforms to the current legislation that regulates surveillance.  There was also the possibility the trial of the two men accused of killing Lee Rigby might have concluded by the time of the session, with the potential for embarrassing revelations still to emerge which Parker could have been put on the spot over.

Much the same thinking seems to have been behind David Cameron's refusal to allow Kim Darroch, the national security adviser to give evidence, after Chris Huhne revealed that the national security committee had not been informed of the existence of Tempora.  Apparently this would have set a "difficult precedent", or rather, would have been acutely embarrassing and revealing about the levels of secrecy even at the very heart of government.  As Keith Vaz said, regardless of who they are, witnesses should not be afraid of questions from MPs, nor should the prime minister or home secretary be dictating over the heads of committees who can and cannot give evidence.  The government and security service have got into this mess through their own ridiculously overblown reaction to Snowden's whistleblowing; they should not be allowed to get out of by shifting the goalposts.  That can be left to the badgers.

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Wednesday, December 04, 2013 

I love a free country.

In the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, Edmund's plan to get out of going over the top by pretending to be mad having come to nothing, General Melchett inspects the troops one last time.  Turning to Baldrick, he asks if he loves his country.  Certainly do sir, he responds.  And do you love your King? Certainly don't sir.  Bristling, literally, Melchett asks why not.  My mother told me never to trust men with beards, sir, comes the answer. Melchett laughs, exclaims on the excellence of native cockney wit, and punches Baldrick in the face.

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.

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Thursday, November 07, 2013 

The illusion of oversight.

It would be an exaggeration to say today's first ever public session with the heads of the intelligence agencies was a waste of time.  Finally getting MI5, MI6 and GCHQ to answer questions from a committee in front of the cameras is itself an achievement; not so long ago Andrew Parker and Sir John Sawers' predecessors were refusing to give evidence to any other parliamentary committee, and would only do so to the Intelligence and Security panel in closed session.

Apart from their showing up though, there wasn't much else to recommend them having bothered taking time out of their schedules.  A flavour of just how little we were likely to learn was in the ludicrous "security" measures that were taken: journalists weren't allowed to take their phones in, for who knows what reason, while the session was broadcast with a two minute delay just in case any information believed too sensitive was discussed or mentioned.  Considering it was unlikely Parker, Sawers or GCHQ's Sir Ian Lobban were suddenly going to detail exactly how it is we combat cyber espionage, or listen in to the communications between al-Qaida leaders, this presumably was meant to be in case a committee member quoted too liberally from the Edward Snowden revelations, or rather, to give the impression such sensitive material could be discussed.  All but needless to say, it wasn't.

There were at least a few minor points, mainly from Parker, which we weren't entirely aware of before.  He put an actual number on the plots which have been foiled since 7/7, saying there had 34, one or two of which had the potential to be mass casualty attacks, presumably a reference to the "liquid bombs" plot and the cell disrupted in Operation Crevice.  Seeing as we've heard from 3 different heads of MI5 now, including Parker, who have repeated the claim there are around 30 plots on-going at any one time, with 2,000 individuals involved in one way or another, these two figures don't exactly tally.  Is MI5 in fact more successful than it's letting on, or are the extremists less competent or committed than is routinely imagined? This discrepancy wasn't remarked on however, unsurprisingly.  Parker's other point of interest was, despite the whining from Labour earlier in the week, they don't regard the replacement of control orders with TPIMs as having had any adverse effect on security.

The rest of the session was dedicated almost entirely to questions that we either already know the answers to, or which the agencies themselves have responded to in one way or another.  Sawers gave the same response when asked if MI6 would ever work with foreign agencies who use torture that he has previously, saying that if he was concerned someone could be mistreated he'd get ministerial approval, and if he was certain there would be, authorisation would never be forthcoming.  This approach was presumably not in operation when two of Gaddafi's opponents were rendered back to the dictator's most notorious jail courtesy of MI6 with Jack Straw's signature, but none of the committee were crass enough to raise the issue. Sawers was also pleased the Justice and Security bill was passed, "as this meant they could "now defend themselves" in such cases, rather than say ensure such embarrassing details as the seven paragraphs never become public again.

You see, secrecy isn't to prevent the services being embarrassed or privacy concerns from becoming known, it's only to ensure those who want to do us harm aren't aware of how we prevent them from doing so, as "nosy" Parker made clear. The idea that GCHQ has been reading everyone's emails and listening in to phone calls just isn't true, said Lobban in response to some very carefully worded questions. Snowden's revelations of course didn't say that they did, as such a thing would be impossible, rather that Tempora has meant they can hoover up all that information. Lobban claimed that their approach was to get to the needle without upsetting the haystack, which was a wonderfully revealing analogy: GCHQ can apparently do the undoable! Or, err, they can't and don't.

Thus we moved on to the ordained Guardian bashing section. Sawers growled that the paper is "not particularly well placed to make [that] judgement" on what would and wouldn't affect national security, echoing the position chairman Malcolm Rifkind had already reached. Sawers added that "our adversaries had been rubbing their hands with glee ... al-Qaida are lapping it up", yet when the three were asked for specific examples of the damage done, they naturally refused to compound it by setting some out.  Lobban said they had "intelligence on specific terrorist groups discussing what they now perceive to be vulnerable communications methods", which rather suggests that, err, they haven't made any such shift yet, and that they might have been rather slapdash in the first place.  All three would expand on the damage done, but only in a closed session, meaning us proles will never be able to judge whether or not the three were telling the truth. Their point was also slightly undermined when they accepted that the ISC had not been kept informed of how their capabilities had developed, learning along with the rest of us from the Guardian, but this too would now be remedied in a closed session. No one suggested that this was perhaps a little late, nor does it inspire confidence they will be more up front in the future.

There were also some great big pork pies in amongst the dull stuff.  Parker, quite incredibly, said that MI5 "was not arguing for more intrusion and more and more powers", even going so far as to say they had turned down "disproportionate" offers in the past.  Really?  Did MI5 really tell Blair and then Brown they didn't want 90 days or 42 days detention?  Eliza Manningham-Buller might have said she didn't believe it was necessary, but that's not the same thing.  As for the data and communications bill we know full well all three agencies have been lobbying hard for, and which would have enshrined in law the powers the Guardian revealed GCHQ already has, we heard absolutely nothing about it.

The committee, with the possible exception of Lord Butler who asked a couple of the more searching questions, completely flunked the opportunity to get any real nuggets of information out of the three.  No one thought to ask why it was the Americans have funded GCHQ to the tune of £100m over the past three years, or what GCHQ meant when they boasted to the NSA that the "legal framework" here was a "unique selling point".  We also didn't hear why it was that only the prime minister and relevant secretaries knew about Tempora, with the national security council and other senior ministers not being informed.  If we're being charitable, perhaps two out of the Guardian's ten questions were somewhat addressed.  The rest were clearly far too pointed.

The real purpose of today was to present the illusion of oversight.  All three intelligence chiefs thought the current regime worked quite well, as indeed it does, for them at least.  When the head of the committee asking the questions makes clear the media simply doesn't have the knowledge to make a decision on what might damage national security, and so shouldn't publish anything without first consulting the very people they're about to expose, it's abundantly clear the entire system is a joke.  Even with its expanded powers, the ISC is a fig leaf, and whether the secret state likes it or not, it's one that goes on shrinking.  The sooner we have a regulator that's worthy of the name, the sooner the public concern about privacy and civil liberties will subside.  Sadly, that seems as far away as ever.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013 

Only the little people can be spied on.

Last week, the NSA/GCHQ spying on everyone and everything scandal finally achieved critical mass.  Not, you understand, due to the revelations that the NSA had been collating the metadata behind the phone calls and messages of millions of ordinary Europeans, but because they had also been monitoring the calls of Angela Merkel, as well as other major leaders.  Cue the summoning of US ambassadors, demands for such practices to end, and an agreed statement at Friday's EU summit that suggested such abuses damaged intelligence sharing.

As Juan Cole writes, it's only when friends and allies discover they've been subject to such practices that those who've previously defended the spies to the hilt decide their mates have gone too far.  Tapping into fibre optic cables in pursuit of mastering the internet, working behind the scenes with tech companies to monitor social networking sites, and operating a scheme where GCHQ spies on the US and the NSA spies on the UK to avoid breaching laws, that's all to be expected.  Intercepting Frau Merkel's "handy", though, that's beyond the pale.  Obama might have known about Prism and all the rest, but listening in to former president Sarkozy's chats with gorgeous pouting Carla Bruni?  He wasn't aware of anything like that, honest.

Luckily for our own prime minister, any manoeuvring around say, Andy Coulson or more prosaic discussions with Sam Cam over which box set to chillax with on any particular night won't have been saved for posterity in the NSA archives, as best friends don't listen in on each other's calls.  Or, if they do, they aren't admitting to it.  The so-called "Five Eyes" agreement where the intelligence agencies of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, probably means there isn't much that isn't shared in any case, which was why it was always nonsensical for the last government to claim the release of the "seven paragraphs" would mean the turning off of the tap.

This meant dear old Dave could stand up in the Commons yesterday and maintain his previously taken position that everything the security services do is wonderful, completely legal and beyond reproach.  The real danger remains the continuing release of such secrets, rather than damage to long-standing relationships when embarrassing details are inadvertently made public.  Indeed, when we want to know the truth about how the Snowden files have affected the work of MI5 and co, you simply have to turn to the Sun, which has a long track record in holding power to account.  Keeping things subtle as always, the paper illustrated the whisper it received from a "security source" that the "terrorists have gone quiet" since the Guardian started printing its stories alongside a photo of the WTC ablaze.

Hugh Muir suggests this will be the line taken by the heads of 5, 6 and GCHQ when they have their first ever live chat in front of the cameras at the intelligence and security committee.  It can't be proved and it can't be disproved, like so much else when it comes to the spooks, and so is perfect for sages such as Malcolm Rifkind and Hazel Blears to pronounce upon.  One suspects the real reason behind the Sun story is the Graun at the weekend revealed how the spooks have previously kiboshed reforms not to their liking.  Apparently concerned that the introduction of intercept evidence into the courts could reveal their surveillance capabilities were far beyond what was known, irony of ironies, they worked with the Home Office to lobby against the proposals, including by putting forward trusted lieutenants such as Lord Carlile and Lord Stevens to speak to the media.  Lord Carlile it's worth remembering was the "independent" reviewer of terrorism legislation, who just last week said the Graun had committed "criminal acts".  Never has been there been so obvious an example of regulatory capture.

That very illusion of independent oversight is exactly what the government and the spooks are seeking to ensure carries on.  It doesn't matter Rifkind has already said newspapers can't make an informed decision on what will and won't affect national security, and so it follows should never publish anything without their permission, we must still go through the motions. The same was the case with Cameron's veiled threats yesterday: as Roy Greenslade says, he can't make the DA-Notice committee do anything, while any attempt to pursue an injunction would take press freedom back years, as well as possibly breaching the ECHR. Such has been the tenor of the debate though, it's understandable that no chances are being taken. And it's not even close to being over.

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013 

Consistency, thy name is the Conservatives.

One of the complaints about modern life you tend to hear repeatedly is that there just isn't any consistency in the decisions made by those in positions of authority.  Whether it's councils and the existence of postcode lotteries, the funding of said councils by central government, or less seriously, (yes, really) the calls made by football referees, if we see what seems to be a lack of fairness we usually hear voices raised about it.  Of course, this doesn't mean those doing so are necessarily right: there's nothing intrinsically wrong with different areas focusing on different services, and it's expecting the impossible for different referees to always agree on whether a bad tackle deserves either a yellow or red card, just as we ought to be used by now to how what's a foul outside the penalty box can't always be one inside it.  Unless you really want a penalty almost every time there's a corner.

Which brings us, in an extremely roundabout fashion, to the Tory view on what is and isn't an abuse of power.  Both David Cameron and Theresa May have now stated that they support the IPCC's view that the three representatives of the Police Federation who completely misrepresented their meeting with Andrew Mitchell to the TV cameras should face misconduct hearings, as well as apologise.  While governments in the past haven't always been so swift to say they believe the police are in the wrong, we shouldn't hold that against this particular one.

More to the point, it's quite remarkable what exactly the police are defending in this instance: forget this involves a politician, and just think of the deserved uproar there would be if they had lied about a meeting they'd had with a family of a victim, or a celebrity.  You can't describe the PF three's version of the meeting, when they said that Mitchell refused to elaborate on what he had said, with the transcript which makes clear he did, as anything other than an outright lie.  It wasn't an untruth, or a different subjective view of what took place, it was a lie designed to keep the pressure up on a minister fighting for his position.  If one of us proles either lies to the police or refuses to assist with their inquiries, we can be charged with assisting an offender or even, at the extreme end, perverting the course of justice.  If we were to lie to our employers, we'd expect to face a written warning or even more severe consequences.  Is it too much to expect for that to be the case here?

Just as incredible is that the police and crime commissioners for West Mercia, West Midlands and Warwickshire have all stated they support the original decision not to bring proceedings against the officers.  Those of us who imagined the introduction of the PCCs was designed to increase political control over the police, as they surely were, can at least now be safe in the knowledge it hasn't quite worked out as the Tories had hoped on that score.  Less welcome is it hasn't improved police accountability one iota, and on this rare occasion when the IPCC has bared its teeth, the first thing that happens is the likes of Hugh Orde and other chief constables come out and either criticise it or say it should be replaced.  After all, what right has the IPCC to complain when it decided only to supervise the West Mercia investigation rather than carry it out itself?  Expecting the police to recognise when their officers are so obviously in the wrong might be reflective of the IPCC's continued naivety, but do their representatives really think this is a strong argument or one that's likely to resonate with the public?

Compare though the ire of the Tories towards the police for their apparent attempts to get Mitchell and in turn the party as a whole with the continuing position taken by the leadership on the Snowden revelations about the intelligence agencies.  Here we have another arm of the state acting at the very edge of its remit, with GCHQ able to suck up unimaginable amounts of personal data, aimed by its own admission at "mastering the internet", and all authorised by a ministerial signature every six months.  We now know almost everyone was kept in the dark about Tempora, whether it was ministers on the National Security Council, the committee set-up to examine whether the data communications bill was necessary, or the Intelligence and Security Committee, the very body meant to monitor the spooks' work.  Indeed, as has been pointed out, this seems to amount to misleading parliament, let alone breaking if not the letter then most definitely the spirit of the act used to authorise the programme.

Rather than so much as accept the revelations necessitate at the very least a debate over the current oversight of the security services, the response from ministers has been to continually shoot the messenger, and as we saw last week, encourage rival newspapers to accuse the Guardian of outright treachery.  Yesterday Theresa May claimed the public interest had been damaged by the revelations, while at prime minister question's David Cameron took the opportunity presented by Liam Fox, of all people, to call for the Graun to be investigated by a committee.  He also had no qualms about misrepresenting exactly how the government approached the paper, with the cabinet secretary apparently "politely" asking it to destroy its local copies of the Snowden files, and also presented their willingness to do so as accepting that their mere presence in this country was dangerous to national security, rather than as a pointless gesture when they had backups overseas.  Indeed, the continuing imperial arrogance of our politicians and securocrats is such that they attempted to intimidate the New York Times as well, who told them exactly where they could go.

While the government is more than prepared to stand up to those opposed to its reforms and present its own as a victim, it has no compunction in smearing and slandering others who want those with the ultimate power and responsibility to be more accountable.  When journalists are compared to terrorists and their work the equivalent of hacking the phones of murder victims, shouldn't it be clear that if you give it, you should able to take it?  Or is that a consistency too far?

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Thursday, October 10, 2013 

The feral press part 2.

Earlier in the week, Chris made a few good points about how us sad sacks tend to exaggerate the influence of the media in general.  It's an argument I'm more inclined to agree with than I was in the past, but I do think that over the longer-term biases against benefit claimants, asylum seekers and immigrants in general have had an impact that has contributed to the policies we're now seeing.  Of special concern is there's evidence that in some instances, the government and media have openly colluded with each other in such campaigns, as Peter Oborne revealed David Blunkett had with the Sun back in 2003.

It's more than reasonable then in light of the events of the last couple of days to wonder if the coalition has informally done a similar deal with the right-wing press over their sudden rage at the Guardian's revelations about GCHQ.  First we had the speech from Andrew Parker that gave them the laughable line that terrorists were being handed gifts via the Snowden files, accompanied by briefings that went even further.  Yesterday these were backed by the spokesman for the prime minister, who said he agreed entirely with Parker's choice of language, while today both Clegg and Cameron have come out and said the Graun is in effect helping terrorists.  The Mail and others meanwhile have further upped the ante by saying the paper "helps Britain's enemies" or is downright traitorous.

Quite apart from how this makes clear just how little it takes for the Mail to view someone or an institution as either hating Britain or guilty of treachery, it provides a quite wonderful contrast with last week.  Then we had the likes of Michael Gove defending the Daily Mail's right to tell lies about a dead man, which if said of someone alive would almost certainly have brought a libel suit, while other Tory politicians cautioned everyone to be mindful of the freedom of the press, as though criticism of the Mail equated to wanting to restrict its right to embarrass itself.  7 days later and we don't just have politicians attacking a newspaper on the grounds that its actions might have helped someone somewhere who wishes us harm, we have other sections of the press joining in, without so much as a thought to publish and be damned, as they have so often argued for in the past.

Criticising the Guardian on the basis that it hasn't properly thought through what its revelations could lead to is one thing.  To bring treachery, helping terrorists or putting lives at risk into it is quite another.  It's as though we've never been through these kind of controversies before: every single time the security services and government have shrieked about national security and lives being put at risk, and every single time they either fail to produce a single piece of evidence to back up their claims or they quietly drop them.  The prosecution against Chelsea Manning failed to provide one example of someone coming to harm due to the release of the files she leaked, and that was despite Wikileaks putting up the raw files for download, against the wishes of the media organisations they had worked with.  The claim by the prosecution counsel quoted in the Telegraph that agents have had to move due to the Snowden files isn't just ridiculous, it's an insult to our intelligence.

Despite having repeated the Guardian's articles, if we're to believe the Mail, Times and Telegraph, they now don't think the public have the right to know exactly what their intelligence agencies are up to.  They shouldn't have been told they were attempting to "master the internet", tapping into fibre optic cables and sucking up every single piece of data they can, that they're trying to break internet encryption, with all the potential consequences that could have, that they've been working hand in glove with the biggest internet companies behind the scenes, despite the denials of both in the past, and that all of this has been deemed lawful on the basis of a certificate a minister signs every six months, to focus on just the most notable things we've learned.  Indeed, according to the Mail all this has helped our enemies, while others quoted with approval suggest the paper should be prosecuted.

As John Kampfner points out, in the past the Mail has been (rightly) outraged over certain abuses by the security services.  That this time round it's taken the side of the government can't just be explained by anger at the Graun not agreeing with them on press regulation; it's that this is a government of a blue rather than a red hue.  It might not like Cameron much, but last week emphasised how it can expect nothing from a Labour government under Ed Miliband.  That their part in this campaign against the Graun betrays their readers' right to know seemingly doesn't matter, but then again, it never has in the past either.

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Wednesday, October 09, 2013 

The feral press, pathetic in the face of real power.

Wouldn't it be lovely to have a free press?  You know, the sort that, rather than concentrating on trivia or revelations along the lines that an X Factor contestant has two cousins who are convicted murderers, actually undertook investigations, exposed wrongdoing, and held governments and the state to account?  If you were to believe the likes of the Mail and the Sun, that's exactly what we have and exactly what we stand to lose should the government's royal charter be used to set-up a new press regulator.  That it seems the same newspapers that plunged the entire British media into a crisis will instead go their own way yet again doesn't enter into it.

Nonetheless, if you ever needed further evidence what we in fact have is an industry that doth protest too much, you only need to see how the Mail, Times and Telegraph all decided today that rather than stand up for press freedom and journalistic integrity, they would instead side with the government and the securocrats against the Guardian.  Not only did they focus in laser like on what was a mere couple of paragraphs in the speech by MI5 director general Andrew Parker, in which he didn't so much as mention either the Graun or Edward Snowden, they were also helpfully briefed by "sources" who told them that "Parker is furious about the Snowden leaks", that the Graun has essentially provided a "handbook" for terrorists in how to avoid detection and that they "find it incomprehensible" there needed to be a public debate about such piffling matters.

When David Miranda was detained at Heathrow under section 7 of the Terrorism Act, plenty of people were quick to point out the number of Sun and former News of the World journalists who have been arrested, many of whom remain on bail, not knowing if they will yet face charges.  It was a fair enough point, and there probably hasn't been enough coverage in the ex-broadsheet press about the impact of the phone hacking investigations on journalism in general.  It's surely equally absurd though to then regard Miranda's detention, and as Alan Rusbridger later revealed, the pyrrhic smashing of a hard drive containing the Snowden files, as anything other than intimidation of the most unsubtle kind.  For the Mail, which unlike the other right-wing tabloids opposed New Labour's worst excesses on civil liberties, to tacitly agree with the government that the real danger is not from surveillance programmes which have grown exponentially without any oversight but the journalism which exposed them is a betrayal of the very values it claims to uphold.

There are obviously other factors at work here other than just anger at the Graun for not going along with the press barons on the new regulator.  The paper was the Mail's harshest critic last week during the Ralph Miliband row (with the possible exception of the Mirror)  and it was the Graun's own Jonathan Freedland who started the ball rolling with his column in the Jewish Chronicle on whether there was a whiff of anti-Semitism about the original article and then editorial (I didn't think there was, but can see why some felt that way).  This doesn't however explain why the Telegraph has took the government/securocrat line, especially when it was one of the few to follow up the Guardian's initial revelations.  The idea that either the Times or Torygraph would have refused to publish the Snowden files had he gone to either rather than Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald is laughable in itself.

The simplest explanation is that the majority of the press, and indeed MPs, are in thrall to the security state.  Parker's speech yesterday was in fact for the most part a sober, dry, and rather dull update on where MI5 stands at this moment.  Contrary to some reports, he did not say that the threat from terrorism was increasing, rather than it was diversifying, as anyone who's watched the news over the past year can tell.  Unlike previous holders of the job he didn't engage in scaremongering, and even suggested that some had done so in the past.  Whether it's true that as he said, the number of those who wish to do us harm remains about the same as it has for the past few years we simply can't tell, but it wasn't by any means an attempt to alarm.  Where he did venture into politics, apart from the nonsense about "gifts" and "handing the advantage to the terrorists" was in his claims that the intelligence agencies are well regulated and monitored, as well as all but asking for the powers that GCHQ already has to be given a proper legal basis.

All of which are the sentiments you would expect from a MI5 director general.  It's when the government agrees with those sentiments, and essentially accuses a newspaper of helping terrorists that we get into territory that ought to receive a response from all those who claim to believe in freedom of expression and the press.  The idea that terrorists or anyone else aren't already highly paranoid about how they communicate is laughable, unless they're the kind we've mostly dealt with of late, the incompetents.  The revelations about Prism and Tempora merely made clear what we and they already suspected.  Indeed, the New York Times reports that the US letting slip it was listening in to communications between al-Qaida leaders has had a far more chilling effect than anything that's emerged about the NSA and GCHQ.

The securocrat attitude is that nothing they don't reveal themselves should enter the public domain. And who can blame them? The last few years have seen their methods during the first stage of the war on terror when they were complicit in the rendering and torture of British residents brought into harsh light. They then lied through their teeth to the Intelligence and Security Committee about what they knew, even claiming they couldn't understand how the Americans were getting those they had captured to talk. They feel so secure in their position that they can make outrageous claims along the line that the Snowden files have dealt them their biggest blow in their history, as though the Cambridge Five never existed.  That these ridiculous sentiments are then repeated in a supposed feral press without criticism only underlines how supine they are in the face of real power.

When the media won't do the very basics, how can we expect those with even less inclination to do so? Just remember, if you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear. William Hague said as much.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013 

Bradley Manning and the new normal.

Even by the standards we've become used to since 9/11, the 35-year prison sentence for Bradley Manning marks a new low.  Regardless of what you think about the wider fallout from the leaks of the diplomatic cables, anyone who suggests that the release of the "collateral murder" video was not in the public interest simply doesn't deserve to be humoured.  In the the bitterest of ironies, the soldiers who laughed as they cut down innocents that day were never so much as reprimanded for their actions.  Still, at least Manning can be grateful that in a magnanimous gesture he's been credited with 112 days served for the time he spent in what the UN described as conditions amounting to torture.  Speaking of which, those officials that ordered and justified the torture of alleged terrorists during the Bush years had their immunity from prosecution upheld by Obama in one of his first acts as president.  Nor does it seem likely that those who authorised the inhuman treatment of Manning will be receiving disciplinary action any time soon, the commander who ordered it simply being moved to a different job.

In the best possible scenario, failing a successful appeal or a presidential pardon, Manning will be eligible for parole once he's served a third of the sentence, meaning he faces a minimum of at least another 10 years in detention.  Edward Snowden said when he revealed himself as the source of the leaks on the scale of surveillance undertaken by the National Security Agency that he had no illusions about how he would be pursued for doing so, but now he knows just how severe his treatment is likely to be should somehow end up back in America.

One thing the United States hasn't done is accuse either Manning or Snowden of being terrorists outright.  In their continuing attempts to defend the detention of David Miranda on Sunday, both ministers and the supposedly independent of government have come perilously close to suggesting that either the Guardian or the journalists working on the articles on the NSA and GCHQ are in league with those who wish us harm or are far too irresponsible to be trusted with such sensitive material.  That at least is the clear implication from the comments not just from Theresa May, but now Nick Clegg over the visits by the cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood to the Guardian to demand that the files leaked to the paper by Snowden be given back or destroyed "as a precautionary measure to protect lives and security".  If this really has been the concern of the government from the beginning, and not anger at how the Graun has exposed GCHQ's strides forward in "mastering the internet" without the slightest amount of scrutiny or oversight, then perhaps they would like to start being explicit about just who or what is that was causing them such worry?  Surely the paper should know, if it doesn't already, about the threats from within?  Or is it really the case that conversations could be monitored by laser, as a "intelligence agency expert" told the paper?

We do at least know exactly what the security services themselves now think about the leaks, as the man supposedly meant to monitor them made abundantly clear on the Today programme this morning.  According to Malcolm Rifkind, chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, the only people who can make a judgement on what will or won't aid terrorists is, err, the intelligence agencies themselves.  Journalists simply can't make the call, so it seems that regardless of what they've uncovered about the actions of the secret state, it shouldn't be published unless those same agencies say it won't harm national security.  Not that this seems to matter at times, at least to the US intelligence agencies, who only a couple of weeks ago made clear that the alert throughout Africa and the Middle East at a potential terrorist attack came as a result of intercepted conversations between the head of al-Qaida and its affiliate in Yemen.  If they didn't know that was where the intelligence had came from, they certainly did after.

Nor was the apparent concern at what the Graun had published up to the point at which Heywood made his intervention.  One suggestion made on Newsnight from a former MI6 officer was that the real worry was the intelligence agencies themselves couldn't get access to the documents at Graun Towers, while they could those elsewhere, hence why they wanted them back or destroyed.  It's certainly more convincing than the "national security" argument, but it's undermined by the officer's other observation that there was no need whatsoever to hold Miranda for the full 9 hours.  If all they had really wanted was the files he had on his person, they could have confiscated those and let him go far sooner.  Which brings us back to the most obvious explanation, that yes, this has all been about intimidating and attempting to pressure the paper into ending its reporting in the most heavy-handed manner available without resorting to the courts.

This is the point ignored by those like Brendan O'Neill who draw comparisons between this case and those of the tabloid journalists currently awaiting trial for conspiracy to misconduct in public office after allegedly paying civil servants for information, much as I have a certain amount of sympathy for his argument.  The cases that have come up so far involved the sale of information about celebrities, relatives of celebrities, or high profile prisoners.  Where the public interest lies is always going to be defined differently, but it's worth remembering that the other high profile recent instance of "stolen" documents being sold to a newspaper was the expenses files, and no one has suggested that wasn't in the public interest, despite laws clearly having been broken in the process.  Snowden it shouldn't really need to be added hasn't just foregone payment for the documents he "stole", he's been willing to sacrifice almost everything to get out information he believed the world needed to know.

What ought to be apparent by now is that national security is the first recourse of scoundrels.  Not everything is useful to terrorists, but almost anything can be.  Only we can decide what is useful to them, so we can use terrorist legislation even if it's against the partners of journalists just passing through the country.  We're doing so to protect the public from terrorists.  If you disagree, then you should think about what exactly it is you're defending.  You don't have any right to know how exactly we're protecting you, but rest assured the security services operate within the law, which is extremely forgiving when we want it to be, and anyway, if you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear. We'll decide when a debate is over, and when you've had your fun. Go against us, and we'll treat you as a traitor, or as a terrorist enabler. What's more, we've plenty of people who'll defend the indefensible for us. Haven't you going used to the new normal yet?

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013 

The revealing of the secret state.

It seems best to start with an apology.  Yesterday, I said the most likely explanation for the detention of David Miranda at Heathrow was that it had been requested by one agency or another in the United States.  As has since become clear, it appears that while authorities in the US were "tipped off" that Miranda was to be detained and much of his property stolen, they in fact didn't ask for it to happen.  Instead, it seems most people, myself included, seem to have completely underestimated just how disingenuous and above the law our very own security services continue to regard themselves.  Moreover, the US authorities didn't have a problem with answering questions about Miranda's detention, unlike our own, who instead seem to positively revel in their abuse of terrorism legislation.  For portraying the US as the bad guy in this instance, I'm sorry.

Not that we're any closer to knowing whose idea it was in the first place for Miranda to be detained under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000.  Opinion differs as to whether or not detaining Miranda under this provision was expressly unlawful or not, such is the breadth of the discretion given when someone is sort of in this country while also sort of not - David Allan Green thinks it was, while others disagree.  In any case, this is not even what the government itself is now arguing.  Rather, the defence from both the Home Office and Theresa May is not that Miranda could potentially have been a terrorist, but rather that he may have been in possession of "stolen information that could help terrorists".  Section 40 of the Terrorism Act defines a terrorist as someone "who…is or has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism".  Clearly, as even the home secretary herself is arguing, Miranda didn't fall under this category.

Let's take a step back for a second and just get our heads around this.  Effectively, our own government is making the exact same argument as the US tried to pin on Bradley Manning; that whether he intended it or not, his actions through leaking hundreds of thousands of documents aided the enemy.  The court martial decided that Manning was not guilty of that charge.  In this case, no one who isn't either completely in thrall to the arguments of the securocrats, or is Louise Mensch, believes that the whistleblowing of Edward Snowden has aided terrorists.  There is the possibility that in the raw the files Snowden had and has could be of use to those who wish to target agents in the field, but Snowden, unlike Manning, has only provided them to media organisations that are reputable and have in many circumstances self-censored, beyond the point at which many would think they should have done.  We can't know what's going on in Russia, or whether there's a quid pro quo between Snowden and the government there, but that doesn't affect the documents provided to Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald which both are continuing to work on.

Unless the Home Office is seriously suggesting then that those who have so far been completely scrupulous in their work, even if the US and UK governments hardly like it, were suddenly going to either provide material to al-Qaida directly, or the Guardian was going to do so through its website or paper, then this has all been about intimidation, as Greenwald himself said at the outset.  As Alan Rusbridger sets out in his extraordinary piece on what the paper has been up against since it started publishing the documents obtained by Snowden, they've quickly realised that the only way to properly ensure that they can continue to carry out such journalism is by shifting it, ironically enough, to the US, where it's protected (somewhat) under the constitution, and doing the old fashioned thing of exchanging data on drives in person.  This is what it seems Miranda was doing, travelling between Brazil and Germany, acting more as a courier than a journalist.  Whether the police had any knowledge whatsoever of what was on the equipment he was carrying is unclear, and the Graun/Poitras/Greenwald certainly aren't letting on.  That he was possibly carrying stolen information is nonetheless irrelevant, as he wasn't detained on suspicion of any such thing.  Even if the letter of the law has not been broken in this case, the spirit most certainly has.

As Rusbridger makes clear, having failed in this instance to get the whistleblower himself, the security state is now after the journalists instead.  So far, as is described, the method is intimidation.  Demanding that the Guardian hand back the Snowden documents, destroy them, or be taken to court was utterly pointless on every measure other than as an example of what could happen when the government knew full well that the paper had other copies in countries outside the reach of the UK.  Equally, fighting the demand wasn't worth the time or money when the paper could just carry on as it has done.  Likewise, detaining Miranda wasn't about protecting the public; it was about showing that they could do it.  Whatever it was Miranda exchanged between Poitras and Greenwald, both will have backup copies.  And as an aside, those commenting that they hope the Graun and the journalists have sufficient security to ward off hackers ought to remember that in the cases of both Manning and Snowden, neither were senior figures but relative juniors, both of whom were nonetheless trusted with access to a plethora of sensitive information.  These were accidents waiting to happen.

What this entire incident ought to lead to is scales falling from eyes at just how our secret state operates.  Snowden, Greenwald and the Guardian revealed, despite what the likes of Tim Stanley have written, that GCHQ in alliance with the National Security Agency have all but "mastered the internet".  They tap the fibre cables coming into and going out this country, and store not just the metadata but the actual content of messages sent online for three days.  In spite of this, they wanted and continue to want the power to merely keep the metadata from internet activity, albeit with most government agencies being able to access it should they so choose.  Without the above, we wouldn't have had the slightest knowledge that our intelligence agencies had access to such a vast amount of personal information without even the slightest of controls; what we also know is that this huge operation is legal thanks to an act of parliament that was written over 13 years ago and was never intended for such use.

These reports were quite clearly in the wider public interest, as was the revelation that the NSA pays GCHQ up to £100m a year for its services.  The response from the government has been to say that if you've got nothing to hide you have nothing to fear, and to put pressure on other newspapers and broadcasters not to repeat or follow up the Graun's reports, with the D-Notice committee also spurred into action.  Most were happy to oblige, it should be noted, including those who denounced the royal charter setting up a press regulator as being the end of the free press as we knew it.  Unable to shut the paper up, it's now turned to invoking terrorism and acting as authoritarian states do, detaining people and confiscating their possessions.  These aren't the actions of a state that does everything to protect its own citizens, they're the actions of a state that does everything to protect itself from proper scrutiny, one that claims that the police are "operationally independent", at the same time as the lackeys of politicians threaten journalists for doing their job.  It's a state that decides when a "public debate" is deemed to be over (whenever it says it is) and that hides behind the possibility of Russia or China gaining access to such information, as though it wouldn't be easier for either to just plant another Manning or a Snowden themselves, considering how lax their own security has been exposed as, or as though either Russia or China don't already know plenty about what GCHQ and the NSA have been up to.  They lie, they cheat, they steal, and then they point the finger elsewhere when the blame lies squarely in their court.

A frequently cited argument is that while the current government might be relatively benign, it doesn't bear thinking about what might happen if an extreme one came to power and made use of the same tools available for fighting terrorism and crime.  Frankly, we've reached the point at which we ought to be deeply concerned at how this "relatively benign" government decides that the ends justify the means.

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Monday, August 19, 2013 

The police state was here again...

Something that never ceases to amaze is how it's only ever brought home to most people just how much power the state has when it personally affects them or those they associate with.  Call it the Damian Green factor if you like; just as it never occurred to politicians that they could possibly be arrested as part of police investigations into leaks from government departments, and so they acted outraged when it did despite how they had written the damn laws that allowed it in the first place, so today we have an outcry, not just from the Graun but also the Spectator over the detention of David Miranda, partner of Glenn Greenwald, by the Met during his stopover at Heathrow.  Cue the talk we've heard before in similar circumstances of dictatorships, unaccountability, malevolence, stupidity, abuse of process and so on and so forth.  This will of course then all be forgotten, so long as such powers are used against those the commentariat and journalists (and witness for example the Daily Mail, supposed voice of the rural middle classes, on the side of Caudrilla against the anti-fracking activists) don't much care for, until it happens again.

This isn't to give even the slightest impression that the detention for the whole 9 hours allowed of David Miranda isn't as extraordinary and as stupid as those same commentators have indicated.  Clearly, it is.  For the partner of a journalist to be held in such a manner by a police force in a supposedly democratic country demands explanation.  Who alerted the police to the fact Miranda would be travelling through Heathrow on the way home to Brazil, and did they also request that he be detained?  Did the notice come from the United States, and if so, from what government agency?  Who within the Met examined the request and then authorised the detention?  Why were so many items belonging to Miranda confiscated from him?  Why was he held for the full 9 hours allowed when such a lengthy period of detention without charge is extremely rare?  If, as is claimed, all Miranda was asked about was the work his partner Green Greenwald has carried out for the Graun through the whistleblower Edward Snowden, how can that possibly be justified under legislation that is meant to deal with terrorism?

Unlike in the case of Damian Green however, it seems unlikely we're going to receive any answers to the above questions.  The Home Office is refusing to comment, while the Met is merely stating that a man was detained and then released.  The government that said if you've got nothing to hide you've nothing to fear is staying resolutely shtum.  It could well be that the arrest was an attempt at intimidation requested from the States, or it might be that our own truly independent and accountable security services decided that they wanted to see if the partner of a journalist who's a thorn in their side had any further "secrets" to write about.  Whichever it was, did they really imagine that misusing terrorism legislation in such a way was going to take place without causing a storm of protest, even if only from those who'll quickly forget about the whole thing?

Or perhaps that was all part of the calculated risk.  After all, as the coverage (or lack of it, in some cases) of GCHQ and its work with the NSA has made clear, little things like not having anything approaching proper legal oversight of Tempora haven't stopped the spooks from trying their darnedest to "master the internet".  They also know that they have almost full political support for doing so, and a paper tiger of a regulator on overwatch in the Intelligence and Security Committee.  It's hardly surprising that Ming Campbell "isn't in a position to know" whether Miranda's detention was acceptable, as he's on the damn committee.  Not having an opinion or being indulgent of those who have always worked in the country's best interests is a requirement to getting a place.  The independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson, is at least continuing to prove he's a step-up from the wholly state owned Lord Carlile, but there's only so much he can do when you consider what he's up against.

Assuming this was something requested by the US, and that seems by far the most likely explanation, it also makes clear just how in hock we are to our friends across the Atlantic.  Miranda wasn't even so much as visiting this country, just changing flights at our largest airport as millions do every year, and yet that was enough for the mere partner of a journalist to be picked up and interrogated as though he was a "terrorist suspect".  Much as there has been deserved criticism of Snowden for his decision to accept asylum in Russia, a human rights abusing "managed democracy", this cases underlines what those merely reporting on the documents supplied by whistleblowers seem likely to face in the years to come: either intimidation, or as now can't be ruled out, prosecution.  What a truly sad state for the mother of all parliamentary democracies to have acquiesced into.

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Tuesday, August 06, 2013 

How US national security policy works.

1. Allow incredibly wide access to various databases, and then act surprised and outraged when the occasional Manning/Snowden decides the wider public should know about the war crimes/corruption/abuse of civil liberties that are contained within those files.

2. Charge whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, a law drawn up during the first world war designed to target those undermining the war effort.  Alternatively, in the case of Manning, go one step further and actively pursue him on charges of aiding the enemy, on the basis that someone in al-Qaida might have downloaded a few of the thousands of files he sent to Wikileaks at some point or another.

3. When trying to regain the initiative following Snowden's revelations, leak to the New York Times and CNN that messages intercepted between the leader of al-Qaida central and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula were the basis for the closing of embassies throughout Africa and the Middle East, making it abundantly clear to the enemy that if they didn't already know they were being listened to, they most certainly do now.

(P.S. The blog is loading slowly due to on-going problems with the server.  All data is being transferred to a replacement, but it's taking a while.)

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Wednesday, July 17, 2013 

Hip, hip hooray!

Can we have three cheers for the Intelligence and Security Committee?  Having postponed the hearing where the heads of MI5 and MI6 would have been questioned for the first time in public as it was "too busy" trying to get to the bottom of the Woolwich murder and the ability of GCHQ to get access to almost any data that it feels like, it's managed to come to a firm conclusion on whether or not the access GCHQ has had to the NSA's Prism programme broke the law.

Could you possibly believe that it didn't (PDF)?  Indeed, it was fairly obvious that it didn't when dear old Bill Hague stood up in parliament and inferred, for that was as far as he went, that everything GCHQ did was signed off by either him or another minister.  It was up to the Graun to inform us that everything was legal and hunky dory as GCHQ's Tempora programme, similar to that of Prism, is operated on the basis of certificates and warrants that are renewed every six months, taking advantage of the wide discretion given in paragraph 4, section 8 of the RIPA act 2000.

Of course, the ISC doesn't specifically state this is how the system operates, as that might make clear just how wide open it makes it for potential abuse.  It merely alludes to it, with the line that "a warrant for interception, signed by a Minister, was already in place".  Meekly, it does make the point that even though written just over a decade ago, RIPA is clearly out of date, as "it is proper to consider further whether the current statutory framework governing access to private communications remains adequate".

Which is only a slight understatement.  RIPA was never written with the intention of giving the security services access to what is likely thousands of terabytes worth of data, which can then be stored for up to 30 days. In part, this is was what the communications bill was meant to address: ministers and the security services just didn't think it was relevant to let us know that they already had access to the exact metadata that was to be collected through it (Tempora collect the data itself as well), under a system that is legal even if it stretches RIPA to absolute breaking point.

In a way, the revelations via Edward Snowden and the Graun have actually played into the securocrats' hands.  Now it's apparent that GCHQ can get access to whatever it wants anyway and it's all perfectly legitimate, what's the point of opposing a bill that will simply update it for a modern age?  Thanks also to the D-Notice and much of the media deciding that the security services are above suspicion, there's been hardly any outcry here at all about the impact on privacy, in complete contrast to how the news of snooping under Prism has been received in mainland Europe.  Moreover, we've got a generation growing up now used to sharing their lives online, apparently perfectly happy with the premise that if you've got nothing to hide you've nothing to fear, where movies actively celebrate how wonderful and beyond reproach Google is.  To say this doesn't bode well for a future where the internet is only going to become even more integral to everyday life no longer seems vaguely paranoid; instead, it looks set to become a fundamental challenge to civil liberties.

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Monday, June 24, 2013 

So it goes.

You don't really need me to tell you that there's a hilarious irony at work in the merry dance Edward Snowden is leading both the US authorities and journalists in. Thanks to his leaks we know that both the NSA and our own GCHQ believe that they have mastered the internet, working close to hand in glove with the world's major internet firms, even able to tap into the fibre optic cables that link the UK with the rest of the world. Can they manage to keep track of just one man though, despite his arriving in Moscow on a plane? The answer is a big fat nope.

What does seem to be the case is that his plan to catch a flight to Cuba today was an elaborate ruse, one that seems to have worked perfectly. While the hacks and no doubt others were all waiting for him to board the Aeroflot plane, it seems likely he was already slipping away. Who knows where he is, but it wouldn't surprise if, despite his apparent request for asylum in Ecuador, he now turned up in Iceland, the original safe haven he had in mind.

Almost needless to say, Snowden's escape, through authoritarian nations no less, has been enraging the right people. The Hong Kong authorities claim the warrant they were sent for Snowden's arrest was bodged, something denied by the Americans, while Russia is now essentially being threatened lest it dares allow him to leave. Considering the act recently passed in Congress that targets Russian officials alleged to have abused human rights, something deemed not necessary when dealing with far more oppressive nations, it wouldn't exactly be a surprise if they also decide to turn a blind eye to Snowden's departure, seven Russian fugitives returned by the US in recent years or not.

And we should be clear about this: while Snowden is not a soldier and so if repatriated couldn't be treated in the same way as Bradley Manning has under the court martial system, you can guarantee he wouldn't have a much better time of it. The United States hasn't been able to point to a single intelligence source who has suffered as a result of Manning's leaks, despite Wikileaks posting the raw files up for anyone to download. The best they could manage is the utterly ludicrous "aiding the enemy" charge, as though Osama bin Laden discovering what US ambassadors really thought about their hosts in some way helped al-Qaida.

Snowden, by contrast, has only passed on files that have exposed how personal information is increasingly being sucked up by the intelligence agencies, with either no oversight whatsoever or the most minimal conceivable.  Even if GCHQ was exaggerating in the documents Snowden leaked to Graun on Project Tempora, and the fact that they've also had a source in MI5 comment suggesting that it's fairly accurate what they can do, then it seems they've already got access to all the metadata they could ever need.  If they can also access the content of messages for three days, then they've already got powers which go beyond what the security services have been asking for in the Data Communications Act.  The idea that foreign intelligences agencies didn't already know about this, and have their own systems either in development or already in use is laughable.  Only if they didn't is it possible that Snowden's leaks have damaged national security either here or in the US.

Not that our leading politicians have commented.  While the Graun's latest story on Friday gained slightly more media attention than their previous expose of GCHQ's spying on the G20, for the most part the silence has continued.  Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee Malcolm Rifkind said that he expected GCHQ would provide a written report in response "within a day or so", and that it again seems will be that.  We might at some point in the future get a truncated, redacted report from the ISC which reassures that everything was in fact in order and we don't have anything to be worried about.  So it goes.

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Thursday, June 20, 2013 

The "treachery" of the Graun and the silence of the rest of the media.

On Monday, the Graun ran an extraordinary story.  Detailing how GCHQ had spied on delegates at two G20 summits in London in 2009, it made clear how even those regarded as allies had had their emails intercepted, with agents having gone to the extent of setting up internet cafes so as to make the process easier.  Justified on the grounds of defending "economic well-being", a clause included in the Intelligence Services Act 1994, it was really something far more mundane: an attempt to gain any sort of advantage in the negotiations.

Considering how much the right-wing press love Gordon Brown, you might have thought that the Graun's revelations would have had a significant impact.  But no.  With the exception of a couple of follow-ups, it seems most of the rest of the media wasn't interested.  Nor were they taken with the Graun's live Q&A session with their source for all the stories on the NSA, Prism and GCHQ, Edward Snowden.  With the exception of an attack piece in the Mail by Stephen Glover, where the man who was one of the founders of the Independent now writes up what Paul Dacre tells him to, nor has there been any real criticism of the paper for what Glover calls "treachery".  Roy Greenslade wonders why.

The most obvious answer, it seems, is that the D-Notice committee issued a polite note to editors after the first tranche of stories were given wide coverage.  While, as always, there had not yet been any contravention of the committee's guidelines, the "intelligence services are concerned that further developments of this same theme may begin to jeopardize both national security and possibly UK personnel".  How this could be the case when all the revelations have done is alerted the average citizen to just how far surveillance of the internet and phone calls has gone, with little in the way of oversight, and how GCHQ and the NSA work together is unclear.  If ever there was an example of the warning off of editors from publishing anything else, quite clearly this it.

All the same, as Dominic Ponsford writes, this doesn't explain why the media didn't bother to follow up the Graun's stories.  Once the Graun had breached the order, which is voluntary, the information was in the public domain and so there was no reason for the rest of the media to continue to abide by the order, as indeed happened once the news of Prince Harry's deployment to Afghanistan became public.  It also can't be that the Graun is now viewed as beyond the pale, else the original reports on the NSA wouldn't have been covered in the detail that they were.

It's more, as we've seen, that the security services are the one part of the state that tends to get a free pass from both right and left.  Where the left tends to have a blind side when it comes to the NHS and the right often seems to think the police can do no wrong (although even that's changed in recent times with the likes of the Mail deciding the police have become just another part of the PC (groan) state), both seem to be overwhelmed by how "keeping us safe" trumps civil liberties and basic accountability every time.  William Hague in the Commons didn't even attempt to seriously engage with the questions about how GCHQ worked with the NSA on Prism, he just said everything was hunky dory, and that was enough for both politicians and the press.  It is, as Greenslade writes, remarkable that the press that makes so much of its independence from the state and raises hell at the threat of regulation finds so little to worry about when it comes to the darkest reaches of government.

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