The world has been shocked by the events in #Paris and the murder of journalists and cartoonists at the offices of Charlie Hedbo. It was an appalling attack of freedom of speech and the right of journalists to be rude and to attack politicians, religions and all those in positions of power. We pride ourselves on our ability to speak reasonably freely and we cherish the right to say what we like about all manner of topics. This right is limited of course by laws of defamation and such matters as not stirring up racial hatred. But lampooning or satirising power in all its forms does not in any way justify going into someone’s offices and gunning them down in a cold blooded attack.
But at times like this we have to be careful that those who wish to limit our freedom in different ways do not use these frightful and frightening events to seek greater powers to control our lives. It was no doubt a complete coincidence that Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, gave a speech the day after the Paris massacre arguing for yet more powers. The claim is that they needed these powers to tackle the increased risk of terrorist attacks in this country. In similar vein, the ‘snooper’s charter’ is back in the frame with the Home Secretary trying to reintroduce it.
We have to be very careful however not to lose basic liberties because of knee jerk reactions to events such as the Paris massacre.
We all of us want to be safe and we are happy to allow the security services to go about their business to keep us so. There is however a risk of ever greater intrusion and surveillance which can be misused to do things which are nothing to do with defeating terrorism. Revelations about the miner’s strike¹ where the security services were involved in framing Arthur Scargill and the role of the government of the day’s involvement in that, are a reminder that we need to keep a careful watch on their activities. Levenson showed the unholy alliance between the Metropolitan police and the press with information being sold by corrupt police officers. Undercover police officers are another example.
There is – or should be – a kind of contract in place. We say to the security services that we accept that if they have concerns about an individual or group of individuals, then they can intercept messages, emails, post and such like to find out what is happening. But there must be some political oversight to this. The Home Secretary should issue warrants and a close watch kept on the results. The Intelligence and Security Committee must also keep a watchful eye on our behalf. Another link in the chain is the press who should be keeping a critical eye on the politicians.
The Snowden revelations showed the huge extent of existing penetration of communications by GCHQ in the UK and the NSA in America. Names of all sorts of programs were revealed showing the shear scale of penetration. Of course this does not mean that everyday conversations are being listened to: that is impossible. But meta-data is collected and phone and email records are matched up to link individuals together who might be involved in potential criminal activity. Through all this hardly a word was seen in our media about it. After Snowden, there was scarcely any coverage in our press (in the UK) with the sole exception of one newspaper. The BBC and other broadcasters were largely silent.
It seemed to be a shock also to the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) chaired by Sir Malcolm Rifkind. Sir Malcolm’s shortcomings and seeming blindness cannot be expressed any better than this quote from the Guardian (14 December 2014) following the torture allegations:
‘[…] Malcolm Rifkind, who chairs the ISC, cannot by any figment of the imagination be deemed independent, nor is his committee. Why is this discredited committee allowed anywhere near an investigation into the spy agencies and torture? Nick Clegg says he wants to know the truth about torture. What is desperately needed is the appointment of a respected and credible panel of independent people to seriously investigate what GCHQ has been up to while hiding behind the NSA cloak of subterfuge.’
The Committee has failed to investigate, or show proper oversight, of the security services and their wholesale penetration activities, rendition or the contracting out of torture to countries such as Libya. Thus a key link in the chain is not there. The Committee is not fit for purpose. The near silence of the press is also disappointing. The tabloid press repeated the need for greater intrusion with little sign of critical analysis.
We all want security but as everyone has said following the Paris outrages, we live in a free society. The intelligence services have an important role to play but we must not lose our liberties in a panic reaction to those events.
1. see The Enemy Within by Seumas Milne, Verso, 2014