Dare I say it, but yesterday did we witness a lurch into self-censorship by the Guardian? How much are they feeling the pressure of the recently convened Commons committee designed to deliberate on the legality of their coverage of the Snowden leaks? Of Cameron’s glib accusation of national treachery? The blood curdling rhetoric of Liam Fox and Julian Smith?
Last week was inauspicious enough when Glen Greenwald left the paper. Of course, he’s gone off to start a new venture with the financial backing of Pierre Omidyaran, American-Iranian billionaire of reportedly liberal proclivities. Still, how it coincides with hullabaloo in parliament to is enough to make anyone wonder how much the Guardian protested.
But what really makes me curious is a very strange article indeed yesterday’s paper by Julian Borger.
He is far from deferential, of course. He makes the point that the US government is indeed alienating many of their allies with their program of mass surveillance.
However, he understates his case massively and bizarrely when he say that “it is clear from the trove of documents leaked by Snowden that the only protection against NSA or GCHQ intrusion is membership of Five Eyes: the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.”
Snowden’s revelations have shown this to make not a whit of difference. Indeed, the opposite appears to be the case. Glen Greenwald states in Le Monde on Monday that as pervasive as American surveillance is in France, Britain has far more communications intercepted and stored by the NSA.
The fact is that GCHQ relies on the NSA to survey British targets that it has no right to cover. John Lanchester makes the point, based on his first hand analysis of the Snowden leaks.
“an SRA, whatever it is, “authorises receipt of 2P intelligence [2P meaning second party, ie other countries in the “five eyes” alliance of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand] on UK based targets where GCHQ has no authorisation”.
Since GCHQ can spy on any foreign national it wants, this can only mean the surveillance of people on whom it isn’t legal for GCHQ to spy. That looks to me an awful lot like a means of obtaining permission to spy on people – British citizens? – outside the law.”
Lanchester is being too tactful when he says that it “looks to me an awful lot like” for it can mean nothing else.
Former Coalition minister Chris Huhne thinks that this relationship between the Americans and GCHQ is also likely in light of the security services careful misleading of the National Security Council on which he sat.
“Under this long-suspected arrangement, GCHQ would bug people that the NSA wants to bug, but is not allowed to do so because they are Americans. And the NSA would return the favour. Both could then protest their lawfulness.”
This warrantless surveillance – and let us remember that we are talking about actual content and not merely meta-data here – is a gross circumnavigation of the law. The burden of proof is on the authorities to make a case for a warrant if it wants to make surveillance on a target. If this cannot be established than the law protects the subject in question from unnecessary intrusion. The whole system is a fundamental safeguard on the power of state to harass and stifle legitimate opposition.
Furthermore one is quite entitled to be suspicious of the state when we realise how it easy it is for it to gain a warrant when it wants anyway. Under section six, paragraph four of the RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, 2000) GCHQ has recourse to “external warrants”. These are effectively generalised certificates for surveillance from the Home Secretary which allows surveillance without an individual warrant having to be sought. In practise all one has to do to commence with surveillance of a target is tick off one of a series of pre-selected legal justifications covered by a certificate – and voila. That easy. Suspicion of the individual in question does not have to be established at all for it is its own justification.
One has to wonder what kind of people cannot already be accessed in this way.
That such a relationship between exists also makes sense of the lack of protest our government has shown towards America.
Does not Borger’s read his own paper? How else can he have missed these crucial points?
By not pointing out how American surveillance happens in Britain he neuters his argument entirely and makes the effects of the NSA seem entirely benign as far as British interests are concerned.
Let’s hope the Guardian is not censoring itself in an attempt to appease the government: this is far too important an issue to be fudged. But who can blame them for feeling cowed in the face of what seems like a systematic campaign of intimidation by the security services and government, with the zealous collusion of this country’s right wing press?