Spy agencies’ accountability

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo - The Philippine Star

This week two dramatic events, both with worldwide implications, played out in the capitals of the United States and the United Kingdom.

In Washington, the issue was how to resolve the standoff between the Obama administration and the House of Representatives over 1) federal government funding to end the partial government shutdown and 2) raising the US debt ceiling to avert default on repayments due after October 17.

In London, the issue was what Parliament must do vis-à-vis the disclosures, by the newspaper Guardian, of details of the UK spy agency GCHQ’s secret surveillance program, Tempora, counterpart of the US National Security Agency’s program, Prism.

These were among secret files leaked to the Guardian and the New York Times by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who is now in Russia to avoid arrest by US security forces.

Through these programs, NSA and GCHQ “harvest, store, and analyze millions of phone calls, emails, and search engine queries by tapping the trans-Atlantic cables that carry Internet traffic.”

(Among the phone calls tapped by NSA were those made or received by Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, who rebuked President Barack Obama to his face for violating her country’s sovereignty when she spoke last month at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.)

The Washington standoff was resolved on Wednesday night, with the Obama government winning.  The London drama took a surprise twist.

For a while the Guardian seemed to have been pushed into a corner. The Conservative government threatened to take legal action against the paper for allegedly breaking the Official Secrets Act, impelling it to destroy a computer hard drive containing secret files from Snowden. The conservative newspaper Daily Mail editorially tagged the Guardian as “the paper that helps Britain’s enemies.”

Last Tuesday Prime Minister David Cameron coaxed the House of Commons select committee to investigate whether the Guardian had violated the law or damaged national security.

However, on Wednesday the Parliament’s intelligence and security committee, which oversees the operations of GCHQ and two other spy agencies (MI5 and MI6), decided to probe the extent of GHQC’s mass surveillance activities. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg backed the investigation, saying it was right to assess how the UK spy agencies used “big, new, powerful technologies.”

Behind this turn of events were steps taken by the Guardian to rally and win support from the British public, influential members of Parliament, and newspaper editors from various countries.

First, in an editorial, the Guardian stated its stand:

“Our security services practice mass collection of communications metadata which, as an NSA official admits, ‘tells you everything about somebody’s life,’ terrorist or not. Neither the Cabinet nor the Parliamentary oversight, nor the legislative committee looking into snooping laws has provided real accountability over such sweeping activity. The security services enjoy a degree of legal and operational autonomy that exceeds what many MPs and ministers, if they knew about it, would judge appropriate.

“It is the unregulated surveillance that poses a threat to the nation, along with the threat from our enemies. Parliament urgently needs to exert a proper grip and to find a better balance.  Starting now.”

Right away, former Labor cabinet minister Nick Brown and Lord Blencathra, the Conservative chair of the committee studying the draft communications (snooping) law submitted by the Home Office, responded.  Both observed that, through Tempora, GCHQ may be operating “outside the law or on the very edge of the law.”

Second, the Guardian sent newspaper editors around the world copies of the Daily Mail editorial and elicited their comments. Thirty-three responded, all supporting the Guardian.  Examples, quoted briefly:

• Jill Abramson, NYT executive editor: “In a democracy, the press plays a vital role in informing the public and holding those in power accountable.  The NSA has vast intelligence-gathering powers and capabilities and its role in society is an important subject for responsible newsgathering organizations…. A public debate about the proper parameters for eavesdropping by intelligence agencies is healthy for the public and necessary.”

• Wolfgang Buechner, Der Spiegel (Germany) editor-in-chief: “The utmost duty of a journalist is to expose abuses and the abuse of power. The global surveillance of digital communications by the NSA and GCHQ is no less than an abuse on a massive scale with consequences that at this point seem completely unpredictable… Der Spiegel and numerous other media outlets around the world will continue to take their duty seriously and report when a security apparatus spins out of control and acts beyond its remit.”

• Alaf Benn, Haaretz (Israel) editor-in-chief: “Journalists have only one responsibility: to keep their readers informed and educated about whatever their government is doing on their behalf — and first and foremost on security and intelligence organizations, which by their nature infringe on civil liberties. The Snowden revelations, and their publication by the Guardian, have been a prime example of fearlessly exercising this journalistic responsibility.”

• Sylvie Kauffmann, Le Monde (France) editorial director: “Snowden’s decision to leak to the media an important amount of top-secret documents showing the unprecedented reach of electronic surveillance was a historic event.  It has raised major questions on the control of the Internet, on the balance between counterterrorism and civil liberties, and on the oversight of intelligence activities by democratic institutions.”

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