We Know GCHQ Spied on Amnesty International But We Still Don't Know Why

Amnesty calls it a "shocking" revelation.

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Jul 1 2015, 8:38pm

The British intelligence agency known as the Government Communications Headquarters or GCHQ spied on the UK-based human rights organization Amnesty International, Amnesty International revealed on Wednesday.

On June 22, the UK's Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruled that GCHQ had illegally spied on two human rights organizations, the South African Legal Resources Centre (LRC) and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

As it turns out, however, GCHQ did not intercept the communications of EIPR but, rather, of Amnesty International. The tribunal wrote in an email to Amnesty that it had "mistakenly identified" one of the two NGOs targeted by the GCHQ.

"We now have confirmation that we were in fact subjected to UK government mass surveillance."

Calling it a "shocking revelation," Amnesty said that the Investigatory Powers Tribunal notified the organization of this mistake on Wednesday.

"After 18 months of litigation and all the denials and subterfuge that entailed, we now have confirmation that we were in fact subjected to UK government mass surveillance," Salil Shetty, Amnesty International's Secretary General, said in the press release. "It's outrageous that what has been often presented as being the domain of despotic rulers has been occurring on British soil, by the British government."

In other words, British spies spied on British human rights workers, and likely, on Americans too, as Guardian reporter Spencer Ackerman noted on Twitter.

This revelation confirms that spy agencies view human rights organizations, regardless of where they're based, as legitimate targets for surveillance, which might open up the way for more legal challenges from Amnesty.

Groups like Amnesty, or Human Rights Watch, have filed various challenges to NSA and GCHQ spying in the past, but have often been rebutted because judges ruled they did not have "standing," in other words, they couldn't prove they were actually targets. That might have just changed.

It's unclear exactly when GCHQ targeted Amnesty, as the email from the Tribunal to the group "made no mention of when or why Amnesty International was spied on, or what was done with the information obtained," according to press release.

UPDATE: GCHQ declined to comment and referred questions to the UK Home Office. The Home Office press office, however, was closed at the time of publication.