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Snowden fugitive saga distracts attention from real unanswered issues

Of course the issue in mass surveillance is the balance between intrusiveness and the destruction of privacy on the one hand and the overriding need to protect a country from real and serious threats to its security. After both Hague and Obama initially gave po-faced defences of the spies as subject to all necessary supervision, the story has dropped out of the news without any deep probing of the balance of interests so casually dismissed with such deceptive assurance by governments. This is a big mistake. Neither the US nor the UK have remotely the level of oversight of the spooks that any proper democracy would demand.

In the US after 9/11 the Vice-President Cheney exploited the fears created to get new powers that he and his staff then kept secret, even from Congress itself. Despite claims that the rules today are now tighter, judges still sit in a secret court and issue secret data collection orders which impose secrecy on the recipients. Just a handful of lawyers, secretly briefed, supervise the process, and their legal opinions governing the process are secret too. It will of course be argued that the ends justify the means, but they would say that, wouldn’t they? Can you believe them? Almost certainly not. The US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, told Congress in March that the National Security Agency does not collect data on ‘millions of Americans’. Asked again now in the light of these latest revelations he says he answered in “the least untruthful manner” possible.

The UK is no better. It now seems the two spy agencies, GCHQ via the Tempora project and NSA via Prism, cynically swap data in which each respects the letter of the law in protecting the rights of its own people, but then lets the other do the snooping on its own population. Hague in his most panglossian mood brushed aside all criticisms, without even so much as mentioning Prism or Tempora at all, claiming that all surveillance operations were subject to ministerial warrant. It now emerges that some of these warrants give a generalised power to engage in spying. he also referred to oversight by the Commons Intelligence Sevices Committee. This is a pure facade. All its mambers are chosen by the PM, they only know about what MI5/6 deign to tell them, they report to the PM not to Parliament, and the PM only publishes their reports if he chooses to, and after editing them in any way he wants without anyone else knowing what may have been deleted or added. Some oversight.

Because the level of public scrutiny is feeble, as is the right of redress, the securitocracy will inevitably push their powers beyond any acceptable limit. But until there is proper and trustworthy public scrutiny there will be no democratic support for the spooks. The answer to the threat of Muslim plots is a fundamental change in foreign policy towards the Middle East, not mass surveillance of the captive population in the West.

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