Surveillance: Who is doing their job?

Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, just gave evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee, concerning the newspaper’s publication of the Edward Snowden leaks. The Guardian has a live-blog and stream of the session.

Late last week, the Washington Post compared the state pressure put on Rusbridger and the Guardian in the UK, with what newspapers elsewhere in the world must contend with. It’s clear that the British Government is attempting to chill free expression in a way that never would or could happen in the USA. Watching some of the questioning of Rusbridger today, that analysis seems to be accurate. In particular, the Chairman Keith Vaz MP asked if Rusbridger was ‘patriotic’ and Michael Ellis MP ‘Godwinned‘ the session by asking the Guardian editor if he would have told the Nazis about the cracking of Enigma.

Analysing the way the Guardian has gone about publishing the Snowden revelations is a red herring. As Rusbridger said to the committee, shooting the messenger is a diversionary trick designed to distract us.

The real issue is that the security services are out of control with not enough democratic oversight. This is a point that Rusbridger made at the end of his evidence session, repeating the conclusions of an essay for the New York Review of Books last month. Essentially: The surveillance laws were drawn too broad, and were misused by the security services.

Reading Rusbridger’s essay, I was struck with a thought: Who is doing their job?

Taking a pragmatic (rather than a moral) approach, one might say that the security services have actually been doing their job rather well! They are mandated by government and the people to collect information in secret, and that is what they have been doing. Devising new methods of intrusion is what we ask of them.

Meanwhile, the Guardian has been doing its job too. It is a newspaper’s task to expose secrets, scandals, and government over-reach. In a democracy, it is something we need and expect as much as we require the security services to do their snooping.

But what of the politicians? They are supposed to moderate the spies. It is their job to balance the contradictory requirements of our polity: that we enjoy some degree of both privacy and security. It is for Members of Parliament and Members of Congress to debate and set the right balance. Have they done their job? Here is how I see it:

  • If the politicians (and by that term I mean the elected heads of Government, but also the oversight committees, on both sides of the Atlantic) knew about and consented to the PRISM and TEMPORA programmes, then they have not been doing their job.
  • If the politicians did not ask whether PRISM and TEMPORA type programmes existed, then they have not been doing their job.
  • If the politicians asked about PRISM and TEMPORA and were misled or lied to by the security services, then they are incapable of doing their job.

Instead of hassling Alan Rusbridger as to how the Guardian handled the leaked Snowden data, the select committees should be focusing on how such major surveillance programmes could have been developed without democratic debate and the consent of parliament.

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