Law? What Law?

I have so much to say about the shocking NSA unconstitutional spying scandal blown wide  open by whistleblower Edward Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald that I barely know where to begin.

So I shall begin with a tangent – the repercussions of the case over in Britain, where scandal has erupted because it turns out that Britain’s intelligence-gathering departments have had access to the US PRISM system for a number of years, and have made use of it on occasions to eavesdrop on the conversations of British citizens.

This should be causing people to light flaming torches and take to the streets, but as it stands today in docile modern day Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron is just being made to squirm a bit. The Huffington Post reports:

The foreign secretary, who is due to make a statement on the allegations in the Commons later, has said the law-abiding British public had “nothing to fear” from the work of GCHQ.

However MPs are likely to press Hague on whether the intelligence service has always abided by the legal framework.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the chairman of the ISC, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that GCHQ would have needed to ask ministers before requesting information on British citizens’ internet activity from the United States.

How comforting. But worst of all were the comments from David Cameron himself, who thought that these flimsy, meaningless words would serve somehow to placate us:

David Cameron has said British intelligence agencies operate “within a legal framework”, as MPs prepare to grill William Hague on GCHQ’s involvement with the American Prism internet surveillance system.

“I think it is right that we have well-organised, well-funded intelligence services to help keep us safe,” the prime minister said on Monday morning.

“But let me be absolutely clear. They are intelligence services that operate within the law, within a law that we have laid down, and they are also subject to proper scrutiny by the intelligence and security committee (ISC) in the House of Commons.”

What the hell does this garbage even mean?

British intelligence agencies are operating within a legal framework. Okay, what legal framework?

He thinks that it’s right to have an intelligence service? Who on earth was saying that it wasn’t?

But the final line is the worst, where he says that the intelligence services are operating within “a law that we have laid down”. Oh, well that’s fine then, let’s all go home.

Does David Cameron at any point mention the particular law under which the intelligence services are operating? Or when this law that “we” laid down was written, voted on and approved? Of course he doesn’t! And I, for one, would rather like to know.

Do you see the difference between having a written constitution and not having one? Do you?

Even if (as in the United States), the President and his administration choose to brazenly flout it, the written constitution at least gives a frame of reference when it comes to determining whether an action is acceptable or unacceptable. Contrast this with Britain, where the most basic laws of the land can (and often are) changed on a whim by the elected dictatorship of a majority government. In Britain, if we are told that a government action that we disagree with is “lawful”, there is no end of Acts and Amendments and revisions and EU law and whatever else to sort through in order to work out whether or not it is so.

The result, of course, is that the British don’t even try. We might kick up a bit of a fuss if someone catches David Cameron devouring live puppies in the alley behind Downing Street one warm summer night, but once his spokesman assures us that he was acting “within the law, within a law that we have laid down”, we would all meekly nod, and let him get back to his puppy-butchering.

This is unacceptable. William Hague and David Cameron need to make crystal clear not only the laws currently on the statute books which allow for spying on the communications of a British citizen (with or without a warrant), but also the specific criteria that the intelligence services use, or at least the threshold of evidence that must be met, when selecting an individual for such a breach of their privacy.

Not that it much matters. David Cameron has lost my vote today.

2 thoughts on “Law? What Law?

  1. Jay A. Newbern June 11, 2013 / 11:07 AM

    You’re ok with 9/11 again. Don’t push back so hard. Find the middle. We generally do not fear reasonable intrusions during attacks from foreigners and other bad guys when we have nothing to hide. Take the practice of showing ID cards, drivers licenses. answering questions asked by the police, even searching folks on the streets of cities (like NY). We like protections.

    I like your comments. Keep it going.


    Jay A. Newbern



    Sent from my iPhone


    • semipartisansam June 11, 2013 / 12:02 PM

      Thanks for the comment.

      You make a fair point; there’s no binary choice between no intrusion and maximal intrusion, and the level needed will depend on circumstance to some extent. I’m absolutely fine with all of the examples that you mention, because they are searches that take place in our presence – we know that they are happening. More concerning are the electronic searches of telephone, email, bank and other records, because they take place without our knowledge, and, as we have sometimes seen, without a warrant or proper legal authority.

      Many thanks for reading!


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