ECPMF: As an investigative journalist, what are your main concerns about what is proposed?
I work from the simple premise that a free inquiring press (news media) is vital for democracy. This is an untidy process but it sort of works better than any other model, a bit like democracy. As I have often said the news media have been the only effective oversight mechanism for intelligence. This is historically proven.
Media oversight is not perfect, official, or consistent, but almost because of that it has worked as the control of it is not in one set of hands or interests. The British state has been noted for its penchant for secrecy compared with other liberal democracies and thus has an innate resistance to transparency (as shown by Aldrich, 2004; and Walton, 2013).
Journalists cannot affect oversight of the intelligence state just by asking the official channels. It is a difficult case by case approach usually done by investigative journalists working with sources and whistleblowers.
This has worked time after time. Snowden may be controversial, but even the outside experts on intelligence before his revelations had no idea how invasive GCHQ [Government Communications Headquarters] surveillance of UK citizens (and others) is and was. It was clearly breaking the law. The same is true with the other “Five Eyes” countries including the US (NSA).
It’s not as though we had not been warned. In 2006, the NYT revealed the Bush administration had (illegally) authorised warrantless interception of American citizens’ communications post 9/11. In the UK, we don’t even have such a restriction on surveilling UK citizens. When you discuss the activities of intelligence agencies with those involved, they tell you that while there may have been problems in the past, "It’s alright now". It never is – we just don’t know what is going on.
If you want a recent example of the press revealing security forces' malfeasance, look at the "Undercover Cops" scandal. (Thanks to The Guardian for their excellent work on this story.) Make no bones about it, the current government is the most authoritarian and doctrinal we have had in modern times, and they want to close down journalistic access to intelligence and security sources.
Since 9/11, we have allowed an enormously powerful mass surveillance machinery to be put in place with inadequate safeguards. It is one thing while a democratic state operates, but if we continue to move in an authoritarian direction, that is quite literally frightening.
In the wrong hands GCHQ, can now make the Stasi in East Germany look like a surveillance cottage industry."
The election of Trump who can, in theory, direct the NSA’s global surveillance programmes to target anyone, is a very disturbing thought.
From my now academic point of view I would suggest that, if philosophy and political theory have real application in statecraft, there are few more important tasks than to develop a normative and conceptual framework for the way intelligence agencies should serve democratic nations without undermining the very democracy they are there to serve. This is still unresolved.
The consultation on the Official Secrets Act has proposed a new model that is designed to frighten and stop journalists and whistleblowers. It is the next step on the path to the authoritarian, all surveilling state.
Theresa May is authoritarian in character. I have it on good authority that even her intelligence chiefs were shocked by how hard line she was as Home Secretary. She has pushed through the Investigatory Powers Act, supports the Digital Economy Bill, and now this. She says the OSA is not targeting journalists. I do not believe it for a minute. They were pushing to see how much resistance there is and, believe me, we must resist.