Thick as thieves

Print edition : July 12, 2013

Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham. The GCHQ has refused to confirm or deny whether it has access to PRISM, but insisted that it has not done anything illegal. Photo: Reuters/Handout

Novelist and former spy John le Carre said if there was one thing that spies were very good at, it was at persuading people to swallow their smoke-and-mirrors stories. Indeed, that is what gave them power over decision-makers. Photo: The Hindu Archives

David Cameron, British Prime Minister. He rejected calls for an independent inquiry and said he was satisfied that no laws had been broken. Photo: MATT CARDY/AFP

William Hague, U.K.'s Foreign Secretary. He said the “close relationship” between British and American intelligence agencies were hugely beneficial. Photo: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP

Keith Vaz, Labour MP and chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, called the revelations “snooper’s charter through the backdoor”. Photo: B MATHUR/REUTERS

The David Cameron government, whose surveillance department has all along colluded with the CIA, provokes anger and ridicule by resorting to an all-too-familiar argument that law-abiding citizens have “nothing to fear” and a bit of intrusion into privacy is a small price to pay for security.

IT is a chilling thought that I could be among the millions of ordinary law-abiding Britons whose personal information is reported to have been effectively stolen by British spies in collusion with their American colleagues as part of a vast, perhaps illegal, fishing expedition to find potential terrorists. It means that British and American spooks will have access to all my e-mails, text messages, Skype calls and any bit of information I ever shared with friends on social networking sites.

The revelation that the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the hub of Britain’s surveillance operation, is using a secret Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) programme, PRISM, to gather details of people’s personal communications has been described as the last nail in the coffin of the idea of individual privacy which has been under relentless attack since 9/11.

“The Big Brother is no longer an Orwellian fantasy and it seems he is now spending more and more of his time in London and Washington than in Moscow or Beijing,” said a rights activist.

It is claimed that the Cheltenham-based GCHQ has had access to PRISM for at least three years and, last year alone, it generated 197 intelligence reports. According to The Guardian, the programme was established in 2007 and allows its users to circumvent the formal legal process needed to obtain personal material such as e-mails, photographs and videos from an Internet company based outside Britain.

It was modified specially for the GCHQ, “suggesting the agency has been able to receive material from a bespoke part of the programme to suit British interests”.

As the paper argued, the use of such a programme raises “ethical and legal issues about such direct access to potentially millions of Internet users, as well as questions about which British Ministers knew of the programme”. The GCHQ has refused to confirm or deny whether it has access to PRISM but insisted that it has not done anything illegal.

The state’s defence

“Our work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the Secretary of State, the Interception and Intelligence Services Commissioners and the Intelligence and Security Committee,” it said.

Typically, the government has sounded evasive, trotting out the all-too-familiar argument that law-abiding citizens have “nothing to fear” and that a bit of intrusion into privacy is a small price to pay for security. Prime Minister David Cameron rejected calls for an independent inquiry into the scale of the covert surveillance, arguing that there was nothing to investigate as he was satisfied that no laws had been broken. British intelligence services were subject to “proper scrutiny” by Parliament and were doing a “fantastic job” in foiling terror plots.

Bristling with his characteristic impatience which has often invited ridicule, he said: “I cannot give a running commentary on intelligence issues…. I’m satisfied that we have intelligence agencies that do a fantastic job to keep us safe and operate within the law.”

And then, seeking refuge in that old gambit that all this is meant to protect people from terrorists, he declared: “We live in a dangerous world. We live in a world of terror and terrorism as we saw on the streets of Woolwich only too recently [a reference to the murder of a serving British soldier by two extremists in the London suburb of Woolwich] and I think it is right that we have well-funded and well-organised intelligence services to keep us safe.”

Echoing his master’s voice, Foreign Secretary William Hague justified the GCHQ goings-on and dismissed as “fanciful” the idea that British spies could be involved in any illegal activity. But, like his boss, he refused to deny the use of PRISM and instead launched on the benefits of the “close relationship” between British and American intelligence agencies. What critics saw as “collusion” was in fact a hugely beneficial relationship aimed at protecting citizens of both the countries. Besides, the intelligence-sharing between them was subject to “ministerial and independent oversight” and any data obtained from the United States involving United Kingdom nationals was subject to “proper U.K. statutory controls and safeguards, including the relevant sections of the Intelligence Services Act, the Human Rights Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act”, he told Members of Parliament.

Rehearsing the familiar argument that intelligence agencies worked in the national interest, he said in a meandering statement: “The British people can be confident in the way our agencies work to keep them safe. But would-be terrorists, those seeking to spy against this country, or those who are at the centre of organised crime should be aware that this country has the capability and partnerships to protect its citizens against the full range of threats in the 21st century and that we will always do so in accordance with our laws and values and with constant resolve and determination.”

The intelligence grip

Few MPs and even fewer independent observers were impressed. It was obvious that the government was saying what the intelligence community wanted it to say and, as one commentator said: “We have been here before. We hear the same arguments every time intelligence agencies are caught with their pants down.”

John le Carre, the master of the spy thriller and himself a one-time spook, said that if there was one thing that spies were very good at, it was at persuading people to swallow their smoke-and-mirrors stories. Indeed, that is what gave them power over decision-makers.

“Their power over you lies in letting you know a little bit, and implying they know a whole lot more; in reminding you of the perils they grapple with, day and night, while you lie in hoggish slumber in your bed. You must take us on trust, they are telling you; or else pay the price when the bomb goes off in the marketplace. And the trouble is, sometimes, they’re right. So the safest thing for your uninitiated politician is to say three bags full, and congratulate himself that he’s been admitted to the magic circle, which these days is a very wide one indeed, covering corporations, newspaper moguls, foreign editors, lawyers, doctors and the whole range of candlestick-makers,” he wrote in The Guardian.

The questions

Members of Parliament are insisting that the government must give a fuller—and truer—account of the GCHQ’s activities. Keith Vaz, Labour MP and chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said he was “astonished” by the revelations and described them as a “snooper’s charter through the back door”.

“I think what we’d like to know is, has this actually had the authority of Ministers and how long has it been going on for? This is not the traditional route of spookology because normally you would go and get an order and that order would be subject to proper accountability and judicial process,” he said.

Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon papers in 1971, revealing how the American public was misled over the Vietnam War, called the Snowden leak the most important in American history—even more important than the Pentagon papers. “In my estimation, there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden’s release of NSA material—and that definitely includes the Pentagon papers 40 years ago. Snowden’s whistle-blowing gives us the possibility to roll back a key part of what has amounted to an ‘executive coup’ against the U.S. Constitution,” he wrote.

The official line that law-abiding citizens have “nothing to fear” has provoked both anger and ridicule. Critics say that it is all very well for the government to try and soften the blow, but such mass surveillance is inherently open to abuse, especially when security services are under relentless pressure to deliver and justify the vast resources they soak up at the expense of more pressing priorities. As Ellsberg pointed out, such “wholesale invasion” of privacy “does not contribute to our security”.

The Economist, while acknowledging the case for electronic surveillance, warned that indiscriminate trawl of personal data on the scale on which it is reportedly happening was not only fraught with risks of things going wrong but patently unfair to those caught up in it. “Trawls through big databases may produce interesting clues—but also life-ruining false alarms, especially when the resulting decisions are cloaked in secrecy. Those on ‘no fly lists’, which ban an unknown number of people from most air travel, are not told what they have done wrong and cannot clear their names. In desperation, 13 American citizens, including some who were exiled from their own country by the travel ban, are suing the government,” it said in an editorial.

This is not the first time that British secret services have been accused of colluding with suspiciously illegal actions of their American counterparts. The post-9/11 war on terror has, all along, been a joint Anglo-U.S. enterprise—plotted and directed by the CIA with a starring role for MI5 and MI6. The latter’s participation in the CIA’s secret programme of extraordinary rendition of terror suspects (kidnapping them and then transporting them to countries where they were tortured) remains the biggest scandal of the past decade.

Meanwhile, every day new skeletons are tumbling out. The latest (June 18) is that British and American intelligence agencies spied on world leaders who attended two G20 conferences in London in 2009, by bugging their phones and intercepting their e-mails. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attended a G20 summit held in April that year, while the then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee took part in a conference of G20 Finance Ministers a few months later. There is no suggestion yet that either was targeted, but who knows? Wait until the next whistle-blower comes along to tell the full story.

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