The cascade of revelations from the Edward Snowden files gets ever more damning. After exposure of the US Nallows analysts ational Security Agency’s Prism system and the matching UK GCHQ’s Tempora system, allowing interlocking and virtually unlimited access to almost all internet activity regardless of so-called privacy protections, we now find that a NSA programme entitled XKeyscore to search with no prior authorisation through enormous agency databases containing emails and ‘nearly everything a typical user does on the internet’. Analysts simply fill in an on-screen form giving only a broad and generalised justification for the search, and this request is not reviewed by a court or by any NSA managers before it is processed. In addition we now learn that the UK spy agency GCHQ is now in hock to the NSA for £100m over the last 3 years for meeting the intelligence demands of the US security services. The Snowden documents reveal that no less than 60% of the UK’s high-value intelligence comes from the NSA, and that a substantial part of GCHQ’s activity is tilted towards keeping the US happy. The papers also show that GCHQ is keen to stress that legal regulations are weaker here than in the US as a good selling point to retain its paid services for the US.
So what should be done? Against the background of all these subsequent revelations it is perfectly clear that the bland and complacent assurances given to the Commons by Hague a couple of months ago – that the oversight of the UK security services was firmly regulated by ministers and entirely within the law – were a thinly veiled charade. The truth is precisely the opposite, that MI5/MI6 and GCHQ operate as a law unto themselves with no effective external accountability whatever. This happens for two main reasons. One is that the main UK legal mechanism, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000, was drafted so loosely – probably deliberately – so as to justify surveillance programmes like Tempora. The second reason is that the Commons’ Intelligence Services Committee (ISC), despite the integrity of some of its members, largely a sham because the Committee’s MPs are chosen by the PM and not accountable to Parliament, they take evidence in secret and are over-dependent on the security service itself for information, and they report directly to the PM who can pigeon-hole their report if he wishes or edit it secretly before making it available.
What is now clearly needed, apart from the repeal and re-drafting of much of the RIPA legislation, is a much stronger and more robust replacement of the largely toothless ISC. It should be chosen by the Commons’ Back-Benchers exactly as other Select Committees are chosen and therefore accountable to Parliament and not the PM. It should have power like other Select Committees to require the production of documents it demands, and where MI5/MI6 or GCHQ reject this on grounds of ‘national security’ (which can so often be used to conceal embarrassment for the government), the matter should be able to be referred to the Information Commissioner for a final decision as to whether the security services’ request should be upheld or not. And their report should be made available unedited to Parliament and where appropriate debated in the House.