The UK's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Image via Wikimedia Commons/Ministry of Defence
Today, President Obama announced reforms to the NSA in response to the outcry over mass surveillance techniques revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. But in the UK, politicians have said very little throughout the revelations, which first came to light last June.
Their quietness is quite remarkable when compared to their US counterparts; while the US will see no less than its head of state talk on the matter today—and even announce changes as a result of the global debate—the UK’s most vocal opponent to the NSA is, well, the editor of the newspaper that published Snowden’s leaked documents in the first place.
Ahead of Obama’s announcements, Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, spoke out about British politicians’ “complacency” over the surveillance issue. “There has been barely a whisper from Westminster. I think they are closing their eyes and hoping that it goes away. But it won't go away because it's impossible to reform the NSA without having a deep knock-on effect on what our own intelligence services do,” he told BBC Radio 4 (Rusbridger starts speaking just after the five-minute mark).
Indeed, the usual response from British parties involved is simply not to respond. Take the most recent revelations that the NSA collects millions of text messages, and that GCHQ (the NSA's British counterpart) also uses their database.
To that, a GCHQ spokesperson predictably told the Guardian, “It is a longstanding policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters,” and added, “Furthermore, all of GCHQ's work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the Secretary of State, the Interception and Intelligence Services Commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee.”
Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian. Image via Flickr/Internaz
Without even any comment, any changes seem unlikely. What’s worse is that the UK government seems intent on keeping other people quiet too, and especially Rusbridger and his colleagues. Prime Minister David Cameron made a not-so-veiled threat against press reporting the Snowden leaks towards the end of last year, and that was after GCHQ officials supervised Guardian employees as they destroyed hard drives containing the leaked documents (a pointless exercise as, duh, other copies existed) and interrogated the partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald under terrorist laws.
You’d think there’d be an outcry—but there isn’t, not really. Not much outside the pages of the Guardian.
It’s not that Brits aren’t affected; UK citizens have certainly been spied on too. In response to the most recent revelations of the harvesting of data from text messages, one politician did speak up. Foreign Secretary William Hague argued that, as far as he was aware, no privacy laws had been breached, essentially echoing the stock GCHQ no-comment comment above: It’s not illegal, so end of discussion.
According to the BBC, Hague said, ”We have perhaps the strongest system in the world, in which not only do I and the home secretary oversee these things, there are then commissioners—the interception of communications commissioner, for instance—who oversee our work and report to the prime minister on how we do that.”
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague. Image via Flickr/Foreign and Commonwealth Office
But Rusbridger countered, “Contrary to what William Hague said the documents say, the NSA likes working here because of the light legal regime here.” He also said he didn’t believe parliamentary committee tasked with overseeing Britain’s intelligence agencies had the resources to effectively do that. He pointed out that MI5, MI6, and GCHQ have a budget of £2 billion, while the oversight committee only has £1 million.
The main reluctance of politicians to engage with the topic, however, is probably just because they’re keen to distance themselves. Normally it would seem likely that the party not currently in power—in this case the Labour Party—would speak out. But as Rusbridger explained, any criticism from them would also have to come with a side order of confession. “I think one of the problems is that both of the main political parties feel compromised about this. Labour is not keen to get involved because a lot of this stuff was done on their watch,” he said.
It’s clear British politicians aren’t going to step up to the plate if they can avoid it. And that’s where the British public comes in, because we should be pressuring them to do so. Why shouldn’t we have the same level of response from our political leaders as Americans, on an issue that is as relevant in the UK as it is the other side of the pond?
By generally refusing to engage in discussion on the matter, except to parrot the line that surveillance is a national security matter and dismiss the fact that it’s also a privacy issue, the British government has cleverly avoided adding fuel to the fire, and the tactic seems to be working. Each new revelation is less shocking than the one before it, purely because we feel like we’ve pretty much seen it all.
But just because it doesn’t surprise us any more doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have us shouting out.