Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

They watch and listen to us ...

... as we blithely give our liberty away

New Statesman Leader (January 31 2008)

One of Gordon Brown's first moves on taking power was to shed much of the rhetoric on crime employed by his predecessor. Gone was talk of a war on terror and a society in breakdown. Was this change merely presentational, or did it reflect a genuine rethink on anti-terrorism and law-and-order policy?

Unfortunately, it appears more the former. Behind the scenes the reality for individual liberty has actually worsened. Take, for example, the annual report of the Interception of Communications Commissioner for 2006, presented to parliament by the Prime Minister on 28 January. The language is chillingly matter-of-fact. The tone adopted by the commissioner, Sir Paul Kennedy, is largely sympathetic to the prying needs of the state. He hails the "quality, dedication and enthusiasm" of the army of people listening in to our telephone calls and tapping in to our computers. He points out that more than 1,000 of the past year's bugging operations were flawed, usually because of what he calls administrative errors, and is at pains to show that this is a tiny proportion of the actual work done. Indeed it is.

The report {1} says that in the last nine months of 2006, more than 250,000 applications were made to intercept private communications; most were approved. That amounts to almost 1,000 a day. The report points out that not only government departments - the Foreign Office, Home Office, Scotland's First Minister - enjoy the right to snoop, but so do bodies such as HM Revenue and Customs, the intelligence agencies, all 52 police forces, and even the fire service. The UK's 474 local authorities have unbridled powers to pry, although apparently only 122 availed themselves of the privilege, using it in more than 1,600 cases.

One can only speculate on the kinds of fascinating conversations some of these council investigators will have uncovered. Sir Paul gives us a clue, saying that the suspected criminals tracked included "rogue traders, fly-tippers and fraudsters". The commissioner is adamant that these powers were successful in preventing murders, and in tackling drugs gangs, people-smuggling, serious violent crime and "terrorist and extremist organisations". Even if we take him at his word, does that mean our politicians have got the balance right?

According to Privacy International, the UK has, with the US, fallen into the lowest- performing group of "endemic surveillance societies". In its latest annual survey, the global human rights group singles out Britain for criticism over its identity cards scheme and its lack of government accountability, and notes that it accounts for nearly a quarter of all the world's surveillance cameras.

This same British state, which jealously guards its own secrecy and powers, is cavalier with our privacy, as the various cases of lost personal data attest. Meanwhile, the intelligence services have stopped all moves to make intercept evidence permissible in court, which would bring the UK into line with other countries.

Brown, as ever, sends mixed messages. It is unclear whether he plans to stick to the ID cards timetable, or to delay as a means of discarding it. As for legislation to extend pre-trial custody to 42 days, the PM may come across as undogmatic, but he still seems determined to push it through. He would be wise not to take on the Labour Party, and to give up both these ideas.

What about the bigger picture? Brown talks about scrutiny, but all the while power seeps from the individual to the state. A report in the same week by parliament's intelligence and security committee complained that the spy services had withheld vital information. So much for the promises of greater accountability.

Infuriatingly, it is the right that is making the most noise on this issue (the intercept report appeared prominently in the Daily Telegraph, but not elsewhere). The Tories' attempt to seize the high ground is a travesty, given their record. Civil liberties are not just vital in themselves, but they may determine the outcome of the next general election. Labour MPs are sleepwalking in the wrong direction.



Speak ill of the dead, this time

Kind-hearted David Hare recorded in our pages recently that he had turned down requests from the BBC to make negative contributions to obituaries of the Queen and Margaret Thatcher. "Surely, the day someone dies is the day when the serious business begins of working out who on earth they were", the playwright noted.

These are noble sentiments, and we paused for a moment to recall Hare's words when we heard of the death of the former Indonesian leader Suharto. In this case, however, such strictures are impossible to put into practice. Are there any words, other than harsh ones, to describe a dictator who ruled his country ruthlessly for thirty years and who came to power, helped by the CIA, through the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of liberals and leftists? Who suppressed all opposition over those three decades, using torture, disappearances and transportation of whole populations to maintain his position? His brutal repression of "communism" won him US backing and lavish financial support, billions of dollars of which he personally embezzled.

The shameful complicity of the west in his 1975 invasion and subsequent occupation of East Timor was powerfully documented by our columnist John Pilger, as was the slaughter of an estimated 200,000 of that land's people. Suharto's legacy speaks for itself. We regret that, on this occasion, we must write harshly of the dead. Very harshly.

Bill Totten


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