Why it’s time for NSA campaigners to target the lies and deception of Britain’s spy agencies

Cerberus_smallBy Simon Davies

Earlier this week the deputy director of the National Security Agency (NSA), John Inglis, made an important and unsettling admission that – remarkably – received scant media attention. What he uttered in the studios of National Public Radio should have set alarm bells ringing in the heads of politicians and campaigners across the world.

Inglis conceded that – at most – one terrorist attack might possibly have been thwarted by the agency’s metadata mass surveillance operations. This rare moment of quantification at last puts some of the present controversy over mass surveillance into perspective.

If Inglis is right, the NSA isn’t Cerberus standing at the gates of hell holding back a tide of destructive evil; it’s more a short-sighted octopus that – in his words – has become an “insurance policy” for the future.

The NSA's John Inglis: finally, some useful information

The NSA’s John Inglis: finally, some useful information

This important disclosure moves the public discussion forward by several leagues. There isn’t a measurable surveillance process at stake that combats identifiable clear and present dangers (as we were once led to believe). Instead, we’re looking at a global spying operation based to some extent on speculative outcomes (i.e. guesswork).

Civil liberties advocates in the United States have every right to feel at least a little jubilant about the (partial) disinfectant of sunshine being applied to officials such as John Inglis. Even beyond the revelations in the Snowden documents, testimony and public statements from those officials are slowly revealing the agency’s true value to global security – and it’s a value that appears to be narrower than previously imagined.

Learning that the valuation of mass surveillance outcomes is speculative more than scientific is vitally important. It allows observers to assess the credibility of assertions by spy chiefs in the US and elsewhere.

For example, in light of the Inglis disclosure, assurances given last October by the new head of Britain’s MI5 agency seem hollow. Resorting again to the Cerberus illusion, Andrew Parker said Britain’s GCHQ (the NSA’s primary operational partner) had played a “vital role” in stopping many terrorist plots in the past decade. He warned intelligence agencies would not be able to sustain current levels of counter-terrorism work without the help of surveillance from GCHQ.

Someone is gilding the lilly. Such unequivocal assurances by Britain fly in the face of the more specific detail emerging from the United States. If new forms of spying are as speculative and “hit and miss” as new information suggests, UK authorities should say so. And yet no UK agency has ever admitted such systemic failure.

Sir iain Lobban: We would never do anything illegal.

Sir iain Lobban: We would never do anything illegal.

Intelligence chiefs claim that their work has disrupted 34 terrorist plots in the UK since 2007. If true (and assuming that their definition of “terrorism” is anywhere near the general meaning of the word), this is a laudable outcome, but it is entirely deceptive in terms of assessing the operations of GCHQ or its more than 6,000 staff. Britain is no closer to understanding the value of SIGINT (signals intelligence) operations compared with other forms of investigation and surveillance such as HUMINT (human intelligence). And no-one is prepared to disclose such information.

Of course spy chiefs will only respond to a firm hand by their political overlords, which in the UK have been historically lame. Even as recently as November 7th, during an inquiry by the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee peppered with patriotism and intrigue, GCHQ Director Sir Iain Lobban was allowed to peddle the same party line that had been trotted out to Parliament by agencies for more than twenty years.

“We do not spend our time listening to the telephone calls or reading the e-mails of the majority, of the vast majority. That would not be proportionate, it would not be legal. We do not do it.”

Not one member of the oversight committee responded meaningfully to Lobban’s obvious skirting of issues such as mass metada surveillance and backdoor access to private companies. It was as if the key issues identified in the US were not relevant to Britain.

Not one member of the oversight committee responded meaningfully to Lobban’s obvious skirting of issues such as mass metada surveillance and backdoor access to private companies. It was as if the key issues identified in the US were not relevant to Britain.

This deception cannot end well. Obfuscation and denial by British spy chiefs has become a disgrace to public trust. The official position on mass surveillance by these agencies has been an orchestrated lie for more than half a century – even more so than in the US. Until as recently as ten years ago British spy chiefs had systematically lied to the public and to Parliament about their involvement with the NSA.

However the British position underlines a bigger problem. Debate around these important issues is presently confined largely to the US – and is focused almost exclusively on the NSA. And while it’s true that the NSA is the spider in the surveillance web, the danger in the present dialogue is that it largely ignores both the web itself and its deputy spider, GCHQ. The world outside the United States has been almost entirely side-stepped.

President Obama’s task force into the NSA revelations provides evidence of this shortcoming. The task force’s report offers little or no substantive reform to the core international agreements that form the basis of global spying operations. Nor does it provide any meaningful safeguards for people outside the US.

This wouldn’t be so disquieting if nations outside America were engaging the issue, but they aren’t. The governments of most countries – even those with a direct operational involvement in the NSA web – have done little or nothing to shed light on their own spy agencies. The Netherlands, Denmark, Italy and many other countries simply refuse to formally acknowledge that there are urgent issues that require public debate.

Commentators would be right to wonder at what point John Inglis’s “insurance policy” becomes a paranoid and self serving surveillance mechanism. They might ask the secret police agencies of countries such as Hungary, Portugal and former East Germany; they too went through the transformation, albeit by way of a somewhat more brutal political process.

How should British advocates deal with this situation? Libel laws aside, should they call a spade a spade? Should they watch carefully for the next lie and call its author a liar? I feel the answer has to be “yes”. Sir Iain Lobban rightly says the need for secrecy should not imply a right to be unaccountable, but nor should the need for secrecy entitle him – or his agency counterparts – to deceive. The public deserves better than that, and the issues at stake demand more than that.