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It was the Met wot done it. More smarmy than ever, Home Secretary Theresa May was plastered across the media this week, hymning the constitutional divide between government ministers and the police over “operational” matters, while acknowledging that she had been informed in advance of Scotland Yard’s decision to intercept David Miranda’s flight to Rio and hold him in custody at Heathrow. Downing Street confirmed that David Cameron was “kept abreast in the usual way”, but “we do not direct police investigations”. The White House was merely given a “heads up” notice.
Oh yeah? There has been a major weeks-long exercise in Downing Street and Whitehall to bring to an end reporting of the Snowden leaks and the public debate. The flagrant misuse of schedule 7 to hold Miranda and confiscate his computer and other electronic equipment is clearly part of this exercise and evidence of the government’s anger and disquiet. Cameron actually ordered the Cabinet Secretary, presumably the “very senior government official claiming to represent the views of the Prime Minister” (in editor Alan Rusbridger’s account), to go to the newspaper and demand the “return” or destruction of the material they were working on. Two officials from GCHQ even oversaw the destruction of the laptop on which the material was stored.
Once the intelligence services knew of Miranda’s flight, Cameron and May had no need to “direct” the police to intervene. The “usual way” held good – that is, ministers are traditionally protected from taking responsibility for the actions of the intelligence services or police by a constitutional divide that may be subsumed, for example (and in this case), by anxious official deliberations over the damage the disclosures were doing. The police would know what was expected of them; the intelligence services would ensure that they did; Cameron and May could rely on them. All they had to do was to give tacit approval.
As for the White House, can there be any doubt that UK ministers and officials were well aware of the lengths that their partner in crime was indulging in a global strop over the Snowden revelations, and bullying governments across the world? The close cooperation between UK and US intelligence agencies relies on what GCHQ and our services deliver to their transatlantic partners. Here then was a gift that our boys could deliver. Not so much “heads up”, more arses up.
The episode has dramatised how real the dangers of massive surveillance are to freedom of speech, media freedom and democratic society as a whole. On Tuesday, the Guardian reported Snowden’s surprise that “there were people in news organisations who didn’t recognise any unencrypted message sent over the internet is being delivered to every intelligence service in the world.” Further, documentary film-maker Laura Poitras, Snowden’s and the Guardian’s accomplice, who is also researching the two interlocked surveillance states, is kept under scrutiny and has been stopped 40 times at airports for her temerity in returning the scrutiny. The state’s treatment of the newspaper and examples like this reinforce Rusbridger’s twin concerns that the surveillance and the weakness of UK laws may soon make it impossible for journalists to protect confidential sources and pose “an absolute threat to journalism” when or if total surveillance comes – “and, increasingly, it looks like ‘when’”.
There is a further question to be asked here: who is really driving the agenda to protect the excessive UK-US surveillance systems under the guise of protecting the public and national security and averting possible “loss of life”? In my view the evidence is accumulating that our politicians (in government and opposition) are too willing to let the security apparatus – the Home Office, GCHQ and the intelligence services – direct national security policies and to demand and exercise unaccountable powers. The Home Office is permanently in government; politicians and parties come and go. Our political class talks glibly of the “deep state” in Egypt and elsewhere. We have our own very British “deep state”.
Two eloquent contributors to the debate over the Miranda affair are David Davis, the Conservative MP, and Henry Porter, author and columnist. In 2009, they both had prominent roles in the unique Convention on Modern Liberty, which held a remarkable series of debates on protecting liberties, bringing people of different views and parties together. The Convention organisers also created the nucleus for a popular national movement. Unfortunately, however, the decision was taken to wind the Convention up immediately after the debates and to forego the opportunity to set up a popular movement. This was in order to protect Liberty’s domain in the civil liberties field, but great as Shami Chakrabarti is, it seems to me that Liberty forms a very narrow front in debate over our liberties. Davis’ and Porter’s interventions suggest that a serious error was made. We need the more diverse and consensual popular movement, apart from the major parties, that the Convention could have become.