FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

The Realms of Impunity

It will only get worse, but the last few days have been interesting in the accumulating annals of massive surveillance. Britain’s equivalent of the National Security Agency, GCHQ, has been placed under the legal microscope, and found wanting.

The legal briefs who have been advising 46 members of the all-party parliamentary group on drones has handed down a sobering assessment of the GCHQ mass surveillance program: It is, for the most part, illegal. In some cases, it may well patently criminal.

According to barristers Jemima Stratford QC and Tom Johnston, the behaviour of GCHQ staffers, in many instances, potentially violates the privacy safeguards laid out in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), largely due to the sheer vagueness of its remit. Such lack of clarity has enabled GCHQ staffers to rely “on the gaps in the current statutory framework to commit serious crime with impunity.”

Some of these are worth noting. Mass, bulk surveillance would be in contravention of privacy protections under EU law. “We consider the mass interception of external contents and communications data as unlawful. The indiscriminate interception of data, solely by reference to the request of the executive, is a disproportionate interference with the private life of the individuals concerned.”

Interception of bulk metadata (phones, email addresses) is treated as a measure “disproportionate” and in violation of Article 8 of the ECHR. That in itself was of little surprise. Of even greater interest was how the barristers dealt with the musty, archaic nature of existing legislation which the executive has been all too keen on using.

Much of this expansive, illegal behaviour lies in the way the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (Ripa) has been left in the technological lurch. Use, retention and destruction protocols on metadata are deemed inadequate, given the few restrictions on the practice. For one, Ripa distinguishes between metadata itself and the content of the messages, a clearly anachronistic form of reasoning that has yet to change.

The act, for example, provides too broad a discretion to the foreign secretary, currently William Hague, while providing “almost no meaningful restraint on the exercise of executive discretion in respect of external communications.”

The rather deft way GCHQ has also gone about intercepting communications – via transatlantic cables – cannot be accepted as legal, and would make no difference “even if some or all of the interception is taking place outside UK territorial waters.”

A troubling, though hardly astonishing feature of the brief is accountability of GCHQ staffers to potential criminal liability. The spectre of this rises for the information gathered and subsequently shared for use by allies, notably the United States. Intelligence used for targeting non-combatants with drone strikes is taken as one specific, and troubling example.

“An individual involved in passing that information is likely to be an accessory to murder. It is well arguable, on a variety of different bases, that the government is obliged to take reasonable steps to investigate that possibility.” The transfer itself, suggests the advice, would be unlawful for that reason. Nor can UK officials rely on the obtuse notion of “anticipatory self-defence” which is used by Washington to justify drone strikes in areas where they are not officially involved. Britain has yet to succumb, at least in that area, to flights of legal fancy.

The way such data is used in drone strikes is hardly an academic issue. It has been the subject of legal deliberations by the Court of Appeal and the High Court. The Court of Appeal’s decision in the Noor Khan case (Dec 2013) involved evidence dealing with GCHQ’s alleged supply of information to the CIA in a drone strike. The claimant’s father, in that case, had been killed by such a strike in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.

Unfortunately, the Court of Appeal proved all too reluctant to venture into operational matters, feeling that doing so would ask the court to “condemn the acts of the persons who operate the drone bombs.” In Lord Dyson’s view, “It is only in certain established circumstances that our courts will exceptionally sit in judgment of such acts. There are no such exceptional circumstances here.” More’s the pity.

The advice will find itself the subject of scrutiny by the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, a body that has come surprisingly late to the game. After all, it took a committee on drones and their questionable deployments, not one dealing with intelligence and security, to produce some sound observations on mass surveillance.

How far the views achieve traction is anybody’s guess. Committees have a habit of making a hash of sound observations and it may well fall to others, such as the Joint Committee on Human Rights, to man the decks for reform. But the words of Labour MP Tom Watson, who chairs the committee on drones, are worth nothing. “If ministers are prepared to allow GCHQ staffers to be potential accessories to murder, they must be very clear that they are responsible for allowing it.”

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

More articles by:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

July 13, 2020
Gerald Sussman
The Russiagate Spectacle: Season 2?
Ishmael Reed
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Perry Mason Moment
Jack Rasmus
Why the 3rd Quarter US Economic ‘Rebound’ Will Falter
W. T. Whitney
Oil Comes First in Peru, Not Coronavirus Danger, Not Indigenous Rights
Ralph Nader
The Enduring Case for Demanding Trump’s Resignation
Raghav Kaushik – Arun Gupta
On Coronavirus and the Anti-Police-Brutality Uprising
Deborah James
Digital Trade Rules: a Disastrous New Constitution for the Global Economy Written by and for Big Tech
Howard Lisnoff
Remembering the Nuclear Freeze Movement and Its Futility
Sam Pizzigati
Will the Biden-Sanders Economic Task Force Rattle the Rich?
Allen Baker
Trump’s Stance on Foreign College Students Digs US Economic Hole Even Deeper
Binoy Kampmark
The Coronavirus Seal: Victoria’s Borders Close
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Power, Knowledge and Virtue
Weekend Edition
July 10, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Lynnette Grey Bull
Trump’s Postcard to America From the Shrine of Hypocrisy
Anthony DiMaggio
Free Speech Fantasies: the Harper’s Letter and the Myth of American Liberalism
David Yearsley
Morricone: Maestro of Music and Image
Jeffrey St. Clair
“I Could Live With That”: How the CIA Made Afghanistan Safe for the Opium Trade
Rob Urie
Democracy and the Illusion of Choice
Paul Street
Imperial Blind Spots and a Question for Obama
Vijay Prashad
The U.S. and UK are a Wrecking Ball Crew Against the Pillars of Internationalism
Melvin Goodman
The Washington Post and Its Cold War Drums
Richard C. Gross
Trump: Reopen Schools (or Else)
Chris Krupp
Public Lands Under Widespread Attack During Pandemic 
Alda Facio
What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Inequality, Discrimination and the Importance of Caring
Eve Ottenberg
Bounty Tales
Andrew Levine
Silver Linings Ahead?
John Kendall Hawkins
FrankenBob: The Self-Made Dylan
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Deutsche Bank Fined $150 Million for Enabling Jeffrey Epstein; Where’s the Fine Against JPMorgan Chase?
David Rosen
Inequality and the End of the American Dream
Louis Proyect
Harper’s and the Great Cancel Culture Panic
Thom Hartmann
How Billionaires Get Away With Their Big Con
REZA FIYOUZAT
Your 19th COVID Breakdown
Danny Sjursen
Undercover Patriots: Trump, Tulsa, and the Rise of Military Dissent
Charles McKelvey
The Limitations of the New Antiracist Movement
Binoy Kampmark
Netanyahu’s Annexation Drive
Joseph G. Ramsey
An Empire in Points
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
COVID-19 Denialism is Rooted in the Settler Colonial Mindset
Ramzy Baroud
On Israel’s Bizarre Definitions: The West Bank is Already Annexed
Judith Deutsch
Handling Emergency: A Tale of Two Males
Michael Welton
Getting Back to Socialist Principles: Honneth’s Recipe
Dean Baker
Combating the Political Power of the Rich: Wealth Taxes and Seattle Election Vouchers
Jonah Raskin
Edward Sanders: Poetic Pacifist Up Next
Manuel García, Jr.
Carbon Dioxide Uptake by Vegetation After Emissions Shutoff “Now”
Heidi Peltier
The Camo Economy: How Military Contracting Hides Human Costs and Increases Inequality
Ron Jacobs
Strike!, Fifty Years and Counting
Ellen Taylor
The Dark Side of Science: Shooting Barred Owls as Scapegoats for the Ravages of Big Timber
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail