Stop Bugging Us public meeting. Image: Oliver Huitson
The voice was German, the topic: Britain. "The prime minister of the motherland of democracy threaten a newspaper? I could not believe that". It sat heavy in the air.
I have just returned from the Mass Surveillance Debate that Henry Porter and others sponsored in London on 4 November. The quote is from Wolfgang Buchner, editor of German news magazine Der Spiegel. The cause of his horror, the spectacle of David Cameron attacking investigative journalism. He was, alas, right to be so unhappy. As the discussion progressed, it became more and more difficult to hold onto any idea of Britain as a place where public interest was more important than the blushes of ministers and securocrats. Britain is, it emerged, the only nation of all those where Edward Snowden's documents have been published and discussed, where a newspaper has been directly threatened by its government.
Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger was one of the invited speakers. He discussed some of the threats to which the Guardian had been subjected. In the audience discussion that followed later Anthony Barnett asked him whether the UK - US special relationship and and threat to its wellbeing had been cited as defining Britain's 'national security' in the attempt to gag the paper. For, Barnett observed, that this has been the cry of the intelligence services some years ago around the rendition of prisoners to torture.
Rusbridger answered that the so-called 'special relationship' had not been explicitly cited as justifying the attempts to menace the Guardian this was implicit in the effort to keep secret the degree of collaboration of Britain's GCHQ with the NSA in the States. But the government did assert that the relationship with the US was part of Britain's national security two weeks ago in a court case against Reprieve's client Abdulhakim Belhaj.
He was rendered along with his pregnant wife to Gadaffi's Libya in 2004. It was a CIA / MI6 operation, with Sir Mark Allen, the then head of the British secret service, writing a letter to Moussa Koussa, the Libyan spy chief, taking credit for the delivery of the 'air cargo'. Mr Belhaj is suing the British government and Jack Straw specifically for his kidnap. The first hearing of the case was two weeks ago.
The government proposed that the matter was not justiciable - that is, that the court should not hear it at all. Why? Because the arguments would inevitably involve unpleasant things being said about the United States as well as the UK, and that that would undermine our relationship with the the US. In other words, British justice must be put aside in the interest of sparing the former Bush administration - and by extension, the present Obama White House - any embarrassment.
This is an extraordinary argument to place in front of a court, and it was done with dark mutterings about how the UK's relationship with the US was only just recovering from the terrible damage it suffered in the Binyam Mohamed case. Lest we forget, in that case, an English court found that the intelligence services had known about the grotesque abuse Binyam suffered and had fed questions and intelligence into that abuse. At the culmination of that case, the UK's complicity in torture was remarked upon with scathing disfavour by the judges. The government, incidentally, tried to influence one of the judges to amend his judgment so that it was less damning. The case evidently still embarrases London, though it seems rather less vital to our principle ally: former ambassador Thomas Pickering and Undersecretary of Homeland Security Asa Hutchinson both recently acknowledged that the relationship was too important to be compromised by such scrutiny.
Our intelligence services need better oversight - indeed, at present one might argue that they enjoy no oversight at all: the Intelligence and Security Committee at the time of the Belhaj rendition simply stated that the services had not been involved in rendition. And on a more banal level: are we really expecting the prime minister to rein in the security services when he recently referred to anyone arguing that privacy is important when considering security as "Lah di dah"?
Surely any service engaging in such an massive amount of surveillance must be scrutinised? Instead we see the rise of secret courts and the crippling of judicial review - one of a vanishingly small number of ways in which the public can hope to compel honesty and good conduct from their political leaders and officials.
But at the very least, can we please unhitch our definition of national security from the U.S. so that those whom we have been complicit in kidnapping can face justice and their victims have some redress in our courts?
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