The usual Establishment farce is being played out once again. Faced with Edward Snowden’s evidence that the UK government’s spy centre GCHQ used the US National Security Agency’s Prism programme to gain illicit access on an industrial scale to the content of private communications of millions of people across the world, the Commons’ Intelligence Services Committee (ISC) have reassured us that “from the evidence we have seen, we have concluded that this is unfounded”. Really? It turns out that, in an extremely short investigation, they had only looked at intelligence information that GCHQ had specifically requested from the US on on particular warranted suspects. But that of course is not the point. What really is at issue is whether GCHQ obtained access to personal data on British citizens or individuals in Britain that had been offered by the NSA to the UK security services, and whether that is legal. It clearly isn’t without a dubious interpretation of the law stretching it far beyond what Parliament clearly intended.
The ISC’s argument that GCHQ had not ‘circumvented’ the law apparently relied on unpublished policies and procedures which the agency had allegedly put in place to ensure that its role in complicity with NSA complied with the Human Right Act. But that again is not the point. What matters is how MI5/MI6 & GCHQ have interpreted the infamous Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA). It seems that the UK security services, having no doubt had a significant role in the drafting of RIPA in the first place, then used some of its vaguely worded provisions to justify launching mass surveillance programmes like Tempora. This is then supposed to allow GCHQ to collect millions of emails, phone calls and Skype conversations from the undersea cables that carry internet traffic in and out of the UK.
There is the further issue that the data-sharing arrangements between GCHQ and NSA suggest that the oversight structures and legal safeguards are being circumvented. This casts a further light on the Communications Data bill which Theresa May at the Home Office insists is still needed to close the ‘capability gap’ restricting the work of MI5/MI6 and GCHQ in their fight against terrorism. It suggests the real reason the government is so keen to pass this bill is that they want to regularise and legalise the illegal activities already going on without parliamentary approval or oversight.
Nor is the ISC remotely the right body in any way to scrutinise this illicit behaviour further. Its members are chosen by the PM, it takes its evidence in secret, it only knows what the security services agree to hand over to it, it reports to the PM and not to Parliament, and its reports are only published if the PM agrees them or only after he has made whatever redactions he wants without telling Parliament. A perfect example of how the British Establishment works, with everything under control and all in accordance with the law.