UK spies get a B+ for intrusive surveillance in 2010

Black_sheep?The quan­go­crats charged with over­see­ing the leg­al­ity of the work of the UK spies have each pro­duced their undoubt­ably author­it­at­ive reports for 2010. 

Sir Paul Kennedy, the com­mis­sion­er respons­ible for over­see­ing the inter­cep­tion of com­mu­nic­a­tions, and Sir Peter Gib­son, the intel­li­gence ser­vices com­mis­sion­er, both pub­lished their reports last week.  

Gib­son has, of course, hon­our­ably now stood down from his 5-year over­sight of MI5, MI6, and GCHQ in order to head up the inde­pend­ent enquiry into spy com­pli­city in tor­ture. 

And both the reports say, nat­ur­ally, that it’s all hunky-dorey.  Yes, there were a few mis­takes (well, admis­trat­ive errors — 1061 over the last year), but the com­mis­sion­ers are con­fid­ent that these were neither malign in intent nor an indic­a­tion of insti­tu­tion­al fail­ings. 

So it appears that the UK spies gained a B+ for their sur­veil­lance work last year.

Both com­mis­sion­ers pad out their reports with long-win­ded descrip­tions of what pre­cisely their role is, what powers they have, and the full, frank and open access they had to the intel­li­gence officers in the key agen­cies. 

They seem sub­limely unaware that when they vis­it the spy agen­cies, they are only giv­en access to the staff that the agen­cies are happy for them to meet — intel­li­gence officers pushed into the room, primped out in their party best and scrubbed behind the ears — to tell them what they want to hear. 

Any intel­li­gence officers who might have con­cerns have, in the past, been rig­or­ously banned from meet­ing those charged with hold­ing the spies to demo­crat­ic account.….

.…which is not much dif­fer­ent from the over­sight mod­el employed when gov­ern­ment min­is­ters, the notion­al polit­ic­al mas­ters of MI6, MI6 and GCHQ, sign off on bug­ging war­rants that allow the aggress­ive invest­ig­a­tion of tar­gets (ie their phones, their homes or cars, or fol­low them around).  Then the min­is­ters are only giv­en a sum­mary of a sum­mary of a sum­mary, an applic­a­tion that has been titrated through many mana­geri­al, leg­al and civil ser­vice fil­ters before land­ing on their desks.  

So, how on earth are these min­is­ters able to make a true eval­u­ation of the worth of such an applic­a­tion to bug someone? 

They just have to trust what the spies tell them — as do the com­mis­sion­ers. 

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