Spying and oversight from November 2013
As a relatively new author, I watched with interest the appearance of the UK’s Spy Chiefs in front of the Parliamentary Committee that is established to hold them to account. My first book published – An Agent’s Demise – had as a backdrop how the Iraqi Dossier might have been manipulated to lead the politicians to decide to go to war. I have started a sequel – An Agent’s Rise and I have another story underway another thriller about revolution. These tales are all triggered by a keen interest in what the spies might get up to, but just as importantly what the politicians and the spy’s bosses know. Plausible deniability is often used to cover tracks both by spies, their managers and the politicians.
The revelations from Edward Snowden a former American computer specialist who apparently worked as a CIA employee and NSA contractor, provided information to the press, some of which has been published, about classified operations by the USA, Israel, and the UK security services. From what little we know these mass surveillance operations have added to some of our knowledge as to what happens, but has concentrated on the technicalities of the programmes rather than what is done with the information.
The appearance of the UK’s spy chiefs in front of the Committee is a regular occurrence but this was the first with all three chiefs (Security Service, Secret Intelligence Service and GCHQ) in public. You can watch the proceedings from the BBC here. Not mentioned but notable by his absence was the Chief of Defence Intelligence (DI) who’s task is to act as “the main provider of strategic defence intelligence to the department (Ministry of Defence) and the Armed Forces.” Apparently the actual strategic defence of the UK is not as important so his attendance at the committee was not called for. Fighting the terrorist war on the ground in Afghanistan is a military operation which GCHQ supports, when their resources are not diverted by the NSA to help monitor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone in the interests of commercial advantage National Security.
So what did we learn from the evidence? Very little; the media made a big deal of the admission by the head of GCHQ that monitored terrorist groups had been observed/heard/monitored discussing how to change their methods of communication in the light of Snowden’s published revelations. If GCHQ bothered to notice the discussion about Internet security has been a constant trend on technical forums for at least 15 years, where methods of encryption, monitoring, obfuscation and a whole host of techniques have been freely discussed. If the UK’s enemies (terrorist or other) were not aware of the techniques then they are either more stupid than we think or perhaps it was a good line to feed the media. Admitting that we have overheard such a discussion is also telling them exactly what Snowden told them, so Sir Iain Lobban (Head of GCHQ) haven’t you just given away that little secret, perhaps your passport should be removed.
There have been some very clever uses of words in the USA and UK to describe the activities like PRSIM and why they are considered legal, under political scrutiny. Effectively the NSA can trawl the data on UK citizens given to it by GCHQ without a warrant and GCHQ can trawl the USA data given to it by NSA without a warrant. Both agencies may legally spy on foreigners without warrants. There is not a handover of a database. It’s the same systems in use just different access permissions. Both agencies can then report to their oversight representatives that they are operating within the law.
Then we have the testimony, not under oath by the way, that multiple terrorist operations have been prevented in the last few years. In Parliament the Head of the Secret Service said 34 operations had been disrupted but provided no evidence for this statement. In the USA General Alexander, head of the NSA, accompanied by the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, stated in testimony to Congress that 54 operations had been prevented since 9th September 2011, again no details provided. He did admit that the use of the surveillance systems had not necessarily contributed to any of these operations.
So what do we know, in the UK there were the attacks of 7th July 2005. Several of the suicide bombers and their wider circle were known to the authorities – result 52 dead over 700 injured. That was four years after 9/11 and that attack was after Embassy bombings and attacks around the globe. This was followed by failed attacks two weeks later when the security authorities managed to kill an innocent Brazilian on a tube train after he had got on that tube train. I won’t list all the attacks Wikipedia has a comprehensive list, but please note the IRA ones over 30 years and yet Al-Qa’eda are considered a bigger threat? The former head of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair, stated in December 2006 that
“Al-Qa’eda poses a greater threat to civilian life than the Nazis did during the Second World War.”
Sir Ian had clearly never researched The Blitz, which killed over 40,000 civilians in one 57-day period from September 1940. He may have been exaggerating a little but is this the mind set, or just a bad history education?
So returning to Parliament and the serious damage that Snowden is alleged to have done. It has been quoted that Snowden’s leaks are the greatest threat to UK Intelligence operations. Like Sir Ian Blair methinks they doth protest too much. They clearly have forgotten or would like us to forget about Blunt, Philby, McClean, Burgess, possibly Cairncross, often reffered to as The Cambridge Four/Five or how about the Profumo scandal when the then Minister of State for War (now the MoD) John Profumo shared a mistress with the Soviet Naval Attaché. Before our American friends get all clever about the British problem what about the Rosenburgs or John Walker.
According to reports Snowden shared access to the information he attained with nearly 1 million others, clearly this secret is not quite as secret as some might think. The fact he could leave the high security office with all this data is the security scandal and out security chiefs on both sides of the Atlantic seem hell bent on avoiding how Snowden got the information instead concentrating, as ever, on the messenger. Snowden did not hand the information to Al-Qa’eda, he may have been in China and now Russia but the security services have failed to demonstrate that the information is in the hands of the Russian or Chinese intelligence services. Stopping the partner of the journalist who was allegedly carrying a written down password to a USB stick does not mean that the stick has been accessed; in fact we are then told that the security services were unable to access the data or were they? So why mention the password at all, maybe it was his bank PIN? Maybe the current court case investigating his detention at Heathrow airport on suspicion of terrorism might shed some light?
As a would be author I have so many possible plot lines for a fictional story left by this mess I don’t know where to start. How much of the story and information that is in the public eye is disinformation or real, is impossible to guess. From what I have seen of our democratic institutions their lack of oversight, technological knowledge, and willingness to believe what the spy chiefs tell them, is not encouraging. After all Sir Malcolm Rifkind the head of the Parliamentary Committee former Foreign Secretary (responsible for the Secret Intelligence Service) has never explained why he claimed expenses for constituency flights to Scotland when his constituency is in London, all within the rules, all submitted with proper Government oversight. He was by no means the worst of the MP expenses scandal but… I haven’t commented on the lack of questions about torture, extraordinary rendition, or any of the other things that maybe we should know about being done in our name, after all the hounding of one, perhaps misguided, whistle-blower is so much better TV than asking a proper question or getting a proper answer.
- UK spy chiefs emerge from shadows to blast Edward Snowden – Reuters (reuters.com)
- NSA leaks: UK’s enemies are ‘rubbing their hands with glee’, says MI6 chief (theguardian.com)
- UK spy chiefs hit out at Snowden (skynews.com.au)
- Questioning of spy agency chiefs ‘wouldn’t have scared a puppy’ (theguardian.com)