THE DIRECTOR of the UK internal security service MI5 has said that questioning GCHQ communications surveillance is doing terrorists a favour and suggested that everyone stop talking 'nonsense' about snooping.
Andrew Parker has given his first speech at the Royal United Services Institute in London since taking over as head of MI5, and has been quickly criticised for his panicked approach to communications.
Parker presumably has been reading reports about Edward Snowden, the US National Security Agency (NSA) and its PRISM programme, as well as GCHQ and its Tempora project.
He sounded petulant and dismissive of concerns that have been raised by the public and the press, as though he has heard enough and wants everyone to stop questioning intrusive GCHQ data surveillance and the population's place under the microscope. He didn't explicitly say it, but the tenor of his remarks suggested that whistleblowing about ubiquitous surveillance by Edward Snowden and the Guardian newspaper has made the UK vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
"It causes enormous damage to make public the reach and limits of GCHQ techniques," he said. "Such information hands the advantage to the terrorists."
Parker said that the idea that the UK spies on ordinary people is "nonsense", and even worse, "utter nonsense". He and the MI5 are damned if they do and damned if they don't, he said, and are in a position where they are criticised for collecting data.
"The idea that we either can or would want to operate intensive scrutiny of thousands is fanciful. This is not East Germany, or North Korea. And thank goodness it's not. Successive Governments have made careful decisions about both the scale and powers of organisations like MI5, proportionate to the threats, and have gone no further. Britain is a democracy that rightly prizes the freedom of the individual. We do not want all-pervasive, oppressive security apparatus," he said.
The MI5 director said that his organisation needs the ability to get into terrorists' communications, and just those. That doesn't stop it from collecting data though, and Parker said that this is society's fault.
"We would all like to live in a world where there were no good reasons for covert investigation of people. But as events continue to prove, that is not the world we are in," he said.
"We only apply intrusive tools and capabilities against terrorists and others threatening national security. The law requires that we only collect and access information that we really need to perform our functions, in this case tackling the threat of terrorism. In some quarters there seems to be a vague notion that we monitor everyone and all their communications, browsing at will through people's private lives for anything that looks interesting. That is, of course, utter nonsense."
So, intrusive tools are only used on people who are "threatening national security". We've heard that argument before, and it is perhaps described best as vague and self-serving.
He added that MI5 is not autonomous or political, but ultimately answers to politicians. At least that is what we think he said.
"Ministers cannot direct MI5 operations, but equally I have to explain and answer for what we do," he said. "MI5 initiates operations, but conducting the most intrusive activity requires the signed authority and consent of the Secretary of State in every instance."
MI5 is getting pulled even closer into the light, he said, and will take part in televised talks in Parliament. Not quite as ideal as he would like, but still, Parker was relatively pleased about this because it gives his organisation a stage upon which to flex its muscles while showing a smiling face.
Parker said that commentators have "mistaken silence for weakness", though we rather doubt that, and indeed he added that it is "plain wrong".
"From my experience, I know that all of the bodies I have mentioned and their supporting staff pursue their responsibilities very fully, professionally and conscientiously. We are also coming soon to the first public hearing at which the agency heads will be televised answering questions from the ISC in Parliament," he added.
"Whilst it can never replace the value of candid and classified evidence given in closed session about the detail of our work, it will be an important and visible extension of the accountability process and one which is transparent and tangible to the British public."
The UK Pirate Party finds it all very hard to swallow. Pirate Party leader Loz Kaye said, "Andrew Parker is clearly trying to close down the debate by playing the national security card. MI5 can bluster all they like, but it's clear there is intrusive surveillance even though we were told there would not be. All we are asking for is a bit of honesty - are we citizens, or are we all suspects?"
"Recent reports that the cabinet was unaware of Prism and Tempora are particularly alarming. What really puts us at danger in this country is spiralling surveillance without proper democratic oversight.... When it comes to domestic surveillance, we have a right to know broadly what we are all subject to." µ
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