In a speech to the Royal United Services Institute on Tuesday, the Director General of MI5 said: “it causes enormous damage to make public the reach and limits of GCHQ techniques.Such information hands the advantage to the terrorists. It is the gift they need to evade us and strike at will.”
This is a sentiment expressed on the front page of various national newspapers. The bad guys, you may have guessed, are the Guardian and Edward Snowden.
To suggest that the Snowden disclosures allow terrorists to attack “at will” is both farfetched and disingenuous. Even in the US, nobody has sought to make such an assertion. Those newspapers who have reported this claim without critique or balance have done their readers a disservice.
Equally, and disappointingly, in his speech Andrew Parker did not mention why it was possible for a 29 year old contractor to the US Government to download thousands of documents about GCHQ’s techniques (nor have any of the media outlets reporting the speech asked such a question.)
Nor did he did not highlight that the US Government itself has sought to detail the operations, reach and capabilities of its agencies – the Director of National Intelligence has established a dedicated website for legal opinions, statements and factsheets – yes, factsheets – on what the NSA is doing.
The growing gulf between what the US Goverment is doing and what the British agencies are saying is becoming increasingly bizarre. Indeed, speaking in Stockholm last month, President Obama said: “There have been times where the procedures, because these are human endeavours, have not worked the way they should and we had to tighten them up. And I think there are legitimate questions that have been raised about the fact that as technology advances and capabilities grow, it may be that the laws that are currently in place are not sufficient to guard against the dangers of us being able to track so much.”
Yet none of these sentiments appeared in the speech. Indeed, it is more striking for what it did not say.
No recognition that Britain’s legal framework was drawn up before Google existed, no acknowledgment that our antiquated oversight mechanism may need further reform, no mention of the US Government’s moves towards increased transparency and oversight. Indeed, no mention even of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s concerns that the existing legal framework may not be ‘adequate’.
The fact he does not feel GCHQ’s reach should be publicly discussed is in stark contrast to the US government’s efforts to maintain public confidence by bringing further transparency and oversight to the reach of the NSA.
People will rightly question why, if the US congress can publicly debate the reach of their agencies, the British public should be denied any details of what is happening here.
We do not expect there to be no spying, for the intelligence agencies to ignore the internet. But in an age where our lives have been transformed by new communications technologies, and the opportunities of ‘big data’ and unprecedented data collection are available to the agencies, it is right and essential that we ask if the legal frameworks remain fit for purpose, having been drawn up by Parliament with the intention of covering copper telephone cables.
Only a cynic could suggest that the timing of the latest round of Leveson negotiations had anything to do with the vitriol directed at the Guardian. (While we’re on the topic, we remain opposed in principle to any Royal Charter or statute governing the press.)
In his speech, Andrew Parker said “A partial picture does the public a disservice. It ultimately tends to corrode confidence in what MI5 and others do, and why.”
We wholeheartedly agree. Which is why we are so disappointed that nothing he, or the leadership of GCHQ, have done in recent months have in any way sought to enhance the public’s understanding of what MI5 and others do, nor engage in the reasonable debate about the scale of surveillance that the internet makes possible. Such a debate is both necessary and overdue – it is disappointing Andrew Parker did not take this opportunity to engage in it.