The long shadow of Edward Snowden has spread from the US and the focus on the NSA to encompass the UK and its agencies, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ. And it has at the same time fuelled a debate over whether Snowden and his ilk are traitorous or heroic. The Guardian newspaper is also being viewed in a similar light, i.e. was it right or wrong in publishing Snowden’s information? And into the discussion enters the question of whether or not the government should be embarrassed at the revelations or guarded about them. Are Snowden’s leaks “ a gift to terrorists”, as claimed by the head of MI6?, or does the blame lay elsewhere? Should the Guardian be praised or pilloried? This article seeks to explore all sides of the issue.
To be sure the response to Snowden’s actions by the US authorities and congress was swift and overwhelmingly opposed to it. But some point out that in contrast to the reaction by the UK, the US response was muted. UK agencies destroyed hard drives and detained a journalist at the airport. Another is distinction is apparent when looking at oversight personnel. In the US there are “armies” tasked with oversight. The UK watchdog was comprised of one individual. The US had a healthy debate over the controversial disclosure of data. There was nothing like that in legislative circles in the UK- that is until now.
A recent, blistering report by the Commons home office’s select committee has been released. It condemns the current lack of oversight by the UK’s intelligence community and calls for radical reform. The existing system, it says, reflects the pre-internet age when a person’s word was accepted without question. Today’s digital electronic era is vastly different and requires added oversight. The report hinted at exonerating the media and the role it played in the Snowden affair alleging that the media was compelled to publish the leaks because of inaction by government agencies. The cross-party report is the initial acknowledgement by parliament that, in the light of the Snowden disclosures of vast government data collection on individuals, serious improvement in oversight and accountability in the security services is warranted.
The MPs say “one of the reasons that Edward Snowden has cited for releasing the documents is that he believes the oversight of security and intelligence agencies is not effective. It is important to note that when we asked British civil servants- the national security adviser and the head of MI5- to give evidence to us they refused. In contrast, Mr Rusbridger (editor of the Guardian) came before us and provided open and transparent evidence.” It should be noted here that Labour and Lib Dem’s attempted to officially applaud the Guardian and other media entities for “responsibly reporting” the leaks citing the opening of a “wide and international public debate.” It was voted down by Tory MPs.
But Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, acknowledged that the report demonstrated cross-party consensus behind Labour’s proposals. “The government should now set out plans for oversight reforms,” she said. This would entail reforming the commissioners system and an opposition chair of the ISC. Cooper also said that the police and security systems were behind the times, and that stronger safeguards were needed to ensure personal privacy and restore public confidence. Nick Clegg has also weighed in on the subject calling for oversight reforms. Among the recommendations are the election of members of the intelligence and security committee, including its chairman. Its chairman, moreover, should be a member of the opposition party. Good luck with that!
The current chair, conservative Sir Malcolm Rifkind, is a former foreign secretary disagrees, and dismisses the report as being purely political. In addition, he believes this to be merely another attempt by the opposition to gain control and force government agencies to give evidence before the committee. Predictably, he attacked Snowden and his supporters for their “insidious use of language such as mass surveillance and Orwellian- which he argued, “blurs unforgivably the distinction between a system that uses the state to protect the people, and one that uses the state to protect itself against the people.”
Presently, the only authority that is able to investigate individual complaints against the security agencies is the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. The MPs suggest a complete overhaul of the under-resourced systems of oversight is needed to end the secrecy and autonomy of this body. The proposals have their detractors, to be sure. The Tories are reluctant to cede power without a fight. So the answer will lay in compromise for the greater good. Much is at stake here, political infighting notwithstanding. One hopes that the parties can come together on this issue so that British citizens can attain the type of surveillance oversight with which they feel comfortable in this new digital age of information.