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What was missing from MI5 chief Andrew Parker's speech

Annie Machon is a former intel­li­gence officer for the UK's MI5, who resigned in 1996 to blow the whistle. She is now a writer, public speaker and a Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

Published time: October 10, 2013 09:54
People use masks with pictures of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden masks during the testimonial of Glenn Greenwald, the American journalist who first published the documents leaked by Snowden, before a Brazilian Congressional committee on NSA's surveillance programs, in Brasilia August 6, 2013.(Reuters / Ueslei Marcelino)

Sir Andrew Parker, the recently elevated Director General of the UK's domestic security Service (MI5) yesterday made both his first public speech and a superficially robust defense of the work of the intelligence agencies.

Reading from the outside, it sounds all patriotic and noble. And who is to say that Parker does not believe this after 30 years on the inside and the MI5 groupthink mentality being what it is? Let's give him the benefit of the doubt.

However, I have two problems with his speech, on both a micro and a macro scale. Let's start with the micro – i.e. the devil in the detail - what is said and, crucially, what is left unsaid. First up: oversight, which the spook apologists have dwelt on at great length over the last few months.

I wrote about this last week, but here's some of that devilish detail. Parker correctly explains what the mechanisms are for oversight within MI5: the Home Office warrants for otherwise illegal activities such as bugging; the oversight commissioners; the Complaints Tribunal; the Intelligence and Security Committee in Parliament.

This all sounds pretty reasonable for a democracy, right? Of course, what he neglects to mention is how these systems can be gamed by the spies. The application for warrants is a tick-box exercise where basic legal requirements can be by-passed, the authorizing minister only ever sees a summary of a summary.... ad infinitum.... for signature, and never declines a request in case something literally blows up further down the line.

Sure, there are independent commissioners who oversee MI5 and its surveillance work every year and write a report. But as I have written before, they are given the royal treatment during their annual visit to Thames House, and officers with concerns about the abuse of the warrant system are barred from meeting them. Plus, even these anodyne reports can highlight an alarming number of "administrative errors" made by the spies, no doubt entirely without malice.

The complaints tribunal - the body to which we can make a complaint if we feel we have been unnecessarily spied on - has always found in favor of the spies. And finally, the piece de resistance, so to speak: the Intelligence and Security Committee in parliament. How many times do I have to write this?

Top cops and Parker's spy predecessors have admitted to lying successfully to the ISC for many years. This is not meaningful oversight, nor is the fact that the evidence of earlier major intelligence whistleblowers was ignored by the ISC, except for the part where they might be under investigation by MI5 themselves.

Andrew Parker, the new head of British domestic spy agency MI5.(AFP Photo / Crown Copyright)

Of course, the current Chair of the ISC, Sir Malcom Rifkind, has entered the lists this summer to say that the ISC has just acquired new powers and can now go into the spies' lairs, demand to see papers, and oversee operational activities. This is indeed good, if belated, news, but from a man who has already cleared GCHQ's endemic data-mining as lawful, one has to wonder how thorough he will be.

While the committee remains chosen by the PM, answerable only to the PM, who can also vet the findings, this committee is irredeemably undemocratic. It will remain full of credulous yes-men only too happy to support the status quo. Secondly, what are the threats that Parker talks about? He has worked for MI5 for 30 years and will therefore remember not only the Cold War era, where Soviet spies were hunted down, but also the very real and pervasive threat of IRA bombs regularly exploding on UK streets.

At the same time hundreds of thousands of politically active UK citizens were aggressively investigated. A (cold) war and the threat of terrorism allowed the spies a drag-net of surveillance even then. How much worse now, in this hyper-connected, data-mining era?

One chilling phrase that leapt out at me from Parker's speech was the need to investigate "terrorists and others threatening national security."

National security has never been legally defined for the purposes of UK law, and we see the goal posts move again and again. In the 1980s, when Parker joined MI5, it was the ‘reds under the bed’, the so-called subversives. Now it can be the Occupy group encamped in the City of London or environmental activists waving placards.

So now for my macro concerns, which are about wider concepts. Parker used his first public speech to defend not only the work of his own organization, but also to attack the whistleblowing efforts of Edward Snowden and the coverage in The Guardian newspaper. He attempts to seamlessly elide the work and the oversight models of MI5 and GCHQ.

And who is falling for this? Well, much of the UK media apparently. This muddies the waters. The concerns about Snowden's disclosures are global - the TEMPORA project affects not only the citizens of the UK but people across Europe and beyond. For Rifkind or the Foreign Secretary to complacently say that GCHQ is overseen by them and everything is hunky-dory is just not good enough, even for the hapless citizens of the UK.

How much more so for those unrepresented people across the world? The IOCA (1985) and later and much-abused RIPA (2000) laws were written before the UK government could have conceived of the sheer scale of the internet. They are way out of date - 20th century rolling omnibus warrants hoovering up every scrap of data and being stored for unknown times in case you might commit a (thought?) crime in the future.

This is nothing like meaningful oversight. Unlike the UK, even the USA is currently having congressional hearings and media debates about the limits of the electronic surveillance program.

Considering America's muscular response after 9/11, with illegal invasions, drone strikes, CIA kill lists and extraordinary kidnappings (to this day), that casts the UK spy complacency in a particularly unflattering light.

Plus if 58,000 GCHQ documents have really been copied by a young NSA contractor, why are Parker and Rifkind not asking difficult questions of the American administration, rather than continuing to justify the antiquated British oversight system?

Finally, Parker is showing his age as well as his profession when he talks about the interwebs and all the implications. As I said during my statement to the LIBE committee in the European Parliament:

• Without free media, where we can all read, write, listen and discuss ideas freely and in privacy, we are all living in an Orwellian dystopia, and we are all potentially at risk. These media must be based on technologies that empower individual citizens, not corporations or foreign governments. The Free Software Foundation has been making these recommendations for over two decades.

• The central societal function of privacy is to create the space for citizens to resist the violation of their rights by governments and corporations. Privacy is the last line of defense historically against the most potentially dangerous organization that exists: the nation state. Therefore there is no ‘balance between privacy and security’ and this false dichotomy should not be part of any policy debate.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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