In the latter part of last week, it became clear that any drives to reform the intelligence community in the United Kingdom would focus less on that community than the behaviour of those who had reported on its activities. Spies will be spies, and those who scribble down their details are bound to get themselves into hot water.
Prime Minister David Cameron took the lead in announcing that a parliamentary select committee deal with the disclosures by Edward Snowden. The investigative drive here, ostensibly to reform outdated intelligence laws, is deemed a matter of “counter-terrorism”. “The plain fact is that what has happened has damaged national security and in many ways the Guardian themselves admitted that when they agreed, when asked politely by my national security adviser and cabinet secretary to destroy the files they had, they went ahead and destroyed those files” (Guardian, Oct 17).
The circumstances surrounding Cameron’s approach to secrecy and the disclosure of confidential information reeks of Oxbridge convention, the stifling old boy’s net: polite request; prompt discharge of duties in the name of Her Majesty’s government; the idea that people of good form just do not tell on their governments. Of course, like many a convention, it reeks. Tradition tends to be the democracy of the dead over the living.
Furthermore, The Guardian disputes Cameron’s assertions, citing that ever onerous British application of “prior restraint” as the true explanation. According to a spokesman, “The prime minister is wrong to say the Guardian destroyed computer files because we agreed our reporting was damaging.” Apparently, the files were destroyed “because the government said it would use the full force of the law to prevent a newspaper from publishing anything about the NSA or GCHQ” (Oct 17, The Guardian).
Any number of committees might rush to do Cameron’s homework on naughty disclosures of intelligence material to the media. The defence select committee, the intelligence and security select committee, and the culture select committee have been touted as suggestions.
As it turns out, Cameron was not short of offers to undertake that great solemn duty of plugging the leaking boat of British intelligence. Keith Vaz of the Commons home affairs committee publicly stated that it would look at The Guardian’s activities as part of an inquiry into counter-terrorism. Vaz, who is that committee’s chairman, said he would consider examining “elements of the Guardian’s involvement in, and publication of, the Snowden leaks”.
The impetus for that came via a plaintiff letter from former Tory cabinet minister Liam Fox, a conservative who has always courted a reactionary streak. Instead of treasuring the quality of liberty, he favours the police-state gruel of surveillance and suspicion. Fox had earlier asked Cameron for a “full and transparent assessment about the Guardian involvement in the Snowden affair”.
Further pressure is being applied by the frothing Tory backbencher Julian Smith, who has personally written to Scotland Yard urging them to take the reins of investigating of The Guardian. He has also been granted a parliamentary debate in Westminster Hall this coming Tuesday on the issue. “I look forward to laying out the reasons why I believe that the Guardian has crossed the line between responsible journalism and seriously risking our national security and the lives of those who seek to protect us” (Daily Mail, Oct 16).
Not all are as mad about security as the Cameronians. Keith Starmer, Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) doesn’t warm to the idea of punishing journalists who do breach laws while performing a genuine act in the public interest. It “would be very unhealthy if you had a situation where a journalist felt that they needed to go to their lawyer before they pursued any lead or asked any question” (The Guardian, Oct 19). A balancing test is required: whether the consequence of the criminal breach is outweighed by the public interest in that disclosure.
Unfortunately, the Starmer’s guidelines remain ones without the force of law. As such, the journalist remains at the mercy of prosecutorial fiat – will they, or won’t they? The outgoing director remains suspiciously confident that the “public interest” has been appropriately defined by the DPP. Those in the media can feel at ease. Given that no judge in common law history, let alone government official has ever perfected that test, this is truly herculean and therefore unreliable.
A neat and striking contrast to the Cameron approach to British intelligence is that of their U.S. big brother in arms, home of the still as yet unshackled NSA. The Snowden affair has produced considerable issue on the subject of blanket surveillance, though it remains to see how strapping they become. A Presidential Review, and three proposed bills before Congress can be counted amongst them.
The bills, at least in raw form, deal with outlawing the bulk collection and data mining of Americans’ phone records and internet records by the NSA. They consider establishing third party oversight of NSA programs which deal with covering data from American citizens (Time, Oct 4). Then there is that rather testy issue of what qualifies as journalism.
It is true that, if Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has her way, such bills will merely be the runts of the legislative litter. Given that she is also a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, she is bound to restrain, as far as she can, the reformist agenda.
The UK, however, has all too many Feinsteins in the “intelligence” mix, and extreme ones at that. The focus in Blighty is more on Snowden’s acts and their Guardian links, rather than the worth of his information or any discernible public service he has given. Evidently, the Cameron government is determined to leave no such acts un-stoned.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and ran with Julian Assange for the WikiLeaks Party as a senate candidate for Victoria. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org