Rolling Back Surveillance – What’s The Catch?


Supporters of ending the practice of bulk data collection by the NSA and enacting safeguards on requesting permission to monitor the communications of private citizens have found a very unexpected ally in Democratic congressman Dutch Ruppersberger, the NSA’s hometown representative and one of the agency’s key supporters.

The Guardian reports:

This week, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger, who represents the Maryland district home to the NSA’s Fort Meade headquarters, came out in favor of a remedy for the controversial surveillance.

Ruppersberger, in interviews with the Washington Post, National Journal and Politico, said he was working to craft a proposal that would require court orders for government requests for Americans’ phone records – perhaps on an individual basis – from the telephone companies, without requiring the companies to expand retention of their customer records beyond current practice.

This has rightly aroused suspicion from some civil libertarians – partly because Ruppersberger admits that elements of his proposal still remain to be “worked out” (read: emasculated before coming up for a vote) and partly because Ruppersberger’s track record on standing up to his district’s largest employer is predictably weak.

Others, however, seem to take his proposal in good faith:

On the other hand, sources said, Ruppersberger’s evolving position represents what one called a “huge step forward” toward an outright end to bulk domestic metadata collection. Ruppersberger’s credibility with the NSA might also be an asset for such an effort.

I’m sceptical. Though any politician turning away from embracing the unchallenged omniscience of the intelligence services is a good thing, we should avoid ascribing too many noble motivations to those who do so. This can be difficult, given the serious way in which such lawmakers are suddenly discussing the issue. Here, Ruppersberger could pass for a concerned member of the ACLU were it not for his voting record and numerous other public statements to the contrary:

“I believe that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act must be reformed. We must improve the American public’s confidence in, and perception of, our national security programs, by increasing transparency, strengthening oversight, and safeguarding civil liberties,” Ruppersberger said.

“I also believe that any proposal to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act must preserve critical intelligence tools that protect our country and its allies.  I am concerned with any approach that would eliminate this important intelligence tool and make the country more vulnerable to terrorist attacks, without providing a workable alternative.”

Ruppersberger’s decision and newfound concern about civil liberties could well be no more than what Glenn Greenwald has called the ‘Angela Merkel’ effect – a term used to describe a phenomenon where a public civil liberty infringement is tolerated quite happily by a public official until they realise that they too have become victims (in Merkel’s case, she was largely silent on the fact that the NSA had been intercepting the communications of German citizens but incandescent with rage that her own private communications might also have been monitored).

Senator Dianne Feinstein of California also falls into this category – long an NSA apologist and advocate for massive secret public surveillance, but suddenly up in arms when the work of her own committee was monitored by the CIA. While it would be nice to believe that a dyed-in-the-wool surveillance hawk such as Feinstein has undergone some kind of road-to-Damascus style conversion to the cause of privacy rights, sadly the greater likelihood is that hypocrisy and political calculation played the larger part in her Senate floor outburst.

Not everyone is convinced
Not everyone is convinced

The likelihood is that the most hawkish, reflexively pro-surveillance lawmakers realise that the political sands have shifted beneath their feet, and have deemed it wise to be seen giving a little ground now to avoid complete defeat in the future.

In Ruppersberger’s case, that defeat would be epitomised by the passing of the rival USA Freedom Act, sponsored by Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, which goes further in setting stricter standards for collecting communications data on individuals, standards that would need to pass a certain burden of evidence in order to gain a court order:

With the details still undetermined in Ruppersberger’s proposal, it is difficult to know how far the new effort would go in requiring court-ordered individual suspicion to access phone records, as well as requiring a specific “relevance” connection to an ongoing terrorism investigation, as required in the Patriot Act and the proposed USA Freedom Act – without which, privacy advocates argue, would leave the door open to dubious searches of government records.

While the gradual conversion – or defensive rearguard action – of politicians like Dutch Ruppersberger and Dianne Feinstein can be cautiously welcomed, the public should never forget that that if these people had their way, we would not be having a national conversation about government surveillance and civil liberties at all.

National security fanatics from both parties have lined up to condemn Edward Snowden for whistleblowing and making the public aware of what the government had been doing, going so far as to call him a traitor and make up all manner of ludicrous unproven assertions to cast doubt on his moral integrity.

If the Ruppersbergers and Feinsteins had their way, the American political debate would continue to bounce back and forth between Obamacare, Benghazi and 2016 speculation because we simply would not know about bulk data collection, the PRISM program, back door access into the servers of our most commonly used internet applications or any of the other “protective measures” that the government felt the need to take without glancing at the Constitution or mentioning what they were doing to the people.

So by all means, let us welcome those genuine converts to the cause of civil liberties. But let’s hold off on the ticker-tape parade in their honour just a little while, until their motives become clearer with time.

UPDATE – 15/03/2014: Whatever the limitations of the debate on surveillance may be in the United States, let us be grateful at least that a debate is taking place at all. In the United Kingdom, by contrast, there has been no apology or sign of contrition from David Cameron, no real admission that the British government had overstepped the mark, and certainly no real political movement underway to start properly overseeing the British security services.


Citing Religious Freedom To Excuse Discrimination Will Come Back To Bite


If your religion requires that you attend church every Sunday, you have the right to do so, and no government should ever strip you of that freedom. And if your religious beliefs compel you to speak out publicly on social issues, that also should be your absolute right, provided that you are not inciting violence against anyone else.*

But if the free exercise of your religion requires that you don’t serve gay people at your place of business because you disapprove of their lifestyle choice, that is just called being sanctimonious, and has nothing to do with piety and everything to do with being judgmental – incidentally, a character trait that some major religions frown upon.

And yet this is exactly the type of behaviour that would be sanctioned under a raft of discriminatory legislation working its way through a number of state houses throughout America. MotherJones reports on this new social conservative backlash:

Kansas set off a national firestorm last week when the GOP-controlled House passed a bill that would have allowed anyone to refuse to do business with same-sex couples by citing religious beliefs. The bill, which covered both private businesses and individuals, including government employees, would have barred same-sex couples from suing anyone who denies them food service, hotel rooms, social services, adoption rights, or employment—as long as the person denying the service said he or she had a religious objection to homosexuality. As of this week, the legislation was dead in the Senate. But the Kansas bill is not a one-off effort.

Republicans lawmakers and a network of conservative religious groups has been pushing similar bills in other states, essentially forging a national campaign that, critics say, would legalize discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Republicans in Idaho, Oregon, South Dakota, and Tennessee recently introduced provisions that mimic the Kansas legislation. And Arizona, Hawaii, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Mississippi have introduced broader “religious freedom” bills with a unique provision that would also allow people to deny services or employment to LGBT Americans, legal experts say.

One gets the very strong sense that the principle of “religious freedom” is being used by the proponents of these bills as a cudgel with which to hit people that they don’t much like.

We can also safely strike out the word “religious” and replace it with “Christian” without affecting the real intent of the legislation, because you can bet your life that supporters of the Kansas bill would go insane if the same law that they support was cited in defence of a Muslim waiter who refused to serve pork sausages to a customer. In fact, ten new campaigns to “keep Shariah law out of America” would be launched before you could utter the phrase “hypocritical, discriminatory nonsense masquerading unconvincingly as a principled defense of religious freedom”.

In short, these bills are exactly what we have come to expect from a religious and social right wing in America that believe the founding fathers established America as an explicitly judeo-Christian land and that the Constitution is nothing more than an appendix to the Bible.

Dan Savage pulls no punches in delivering his verdict on the spate of new discriminatory legislation:

I don’t remember where I read it but this is a good idea: these laws should include a provision requiring business owners who wish to access their “protections” to publicly post signs in their windows and on their websites that list the types of people they refuse to serve. That might prompt some hateful Christianists to think twice. Because then they wouldn’t just be losing the business of the odd gay couple they got to turn away in a fit of self-righteous assholery. They would also be losing the business of straight people who don’t want to patronize businesses that discriminate against their gay and lesbian friends, neighbors, and family members—and others who worry about where empowering religious bigots could ultimately lead.

Not a bad idea at all. Savage may propose it only in jest, but perhaps, if these odious bills are to be passed over Democratic opposition, they could be sabotaged with amendments to include just such a poison pill clause. You want to arbitrarily turn away gay people from your business establishment? Well sure, go right on ahead – but make sure that you post a big sign out front listing all of the types of people whose lifestyles you frown on and consequently refuse to serve. And while you’re at it, post the same list prominently at the top of your company website, just to make absolutely clear which potential customers you are willing to welcome and which ones you will shun. After all, a well-functioning market requires perfect information.

In seeking to usurp the protections of the First Amendment and bastardise them in service of their cynical anti-gay agenda, supporters of this pro-discrimination legislation are starting down a dangerous road. Having only recently put the Jim Crow era behind them, some people seem only too eager to dust off the old “No Colored Allowed” signs and repurpose them for the war against their next target.

Of course, even if the pro-discrimination bills do successfully make it through the state legislatures and get signed into law by the Governors (many of whom have national political aspirations of their own), and even if they survive their inevitable challenge all the way up to the Supreme Court, the legislation would almost certainly be destroyed in the fiery crucible of broader public opinion, most of all among young people with whom the Republican Party has enough of an image problem already.

One of the main problems is the fact that there are no real logical or enforceable limits to “religious freedoms” being proposed. One can easily picture Newt and Callista Gingrich forlornly walking the streets of Washington D.C. in the rain, being turned away from one fancy restaurant after another because the proprietor’s sincerely held religious beliefs prohibit adultery and call it a sin. Of course, under no circumstances could the proprietor ever entertain the idea of serving a customer whose life story did not perfectly comply with the teachings of Jesus Pat Robertson, and if the new legislation is passed he would now have the weight of the law to back him up.

A prohibition on stealing was important enough to be included among the Ten Commandments, so perhaps we can also expect huge lines building outside places like Starbucks as the already overworked employees complete the mandatory criminal records background check before serving you your tall non-fat vanilla spice latte with extra nutmeg.

We are able to laugh at these ludicrous examples of the laws being applied to their bizarre extremes because although the attempt to push new legislation is troubling, it is really nothing more than the death throes of an old way of life where persecution and ostracisation of people because of their sexuality is excused and permitted. The legislation represents a collective shriek of indignance and self-pity from people who are finally starting to realise that they have irretrievably lost the argument, and will soon have to change their own behaviour rather than bully others into suppressing their real selves for fear of causing offense or inviting persecution.

As Andrew Sullivan said of the Kansas bill:

It is premised on the notion that the most pressing injustice in Kansas right now is the persecution some religious people are allegedly experiencing at the hands of homosexuals.

Such a notion is plainly absurd. Certain bigoted Christianists may have convinced themselves that they are being persecuted because they are no longer allowed to inflict their worldview and moral code on others, but there are now too few Americans willing to show up to their pity party to be of any help. Playing the victim card will not work outside the confines of their own shrinking closed network of intolerant people. Sullivan continues:

It’s a misstep because it so clearly casts the anti-gay movement as the heirs to Jim Crow. If you want to taint the Republican right as nasty bigots who would do to gays today what Southerners did to segregated African-Americans in the past, you’ve now got a text-book case. The incidents of discrimination will surely follow, and, under the law, be seen to have impunity. Someone will be denied a seat at a lunch counter. The next day, dozens of customers will replace him. The state will have to enforce the owner’s right to refuse service. You can imagine the scenes. Or someone will be fired for marrying the person they love. The next day, his neighbors and friends will rally around.

If you were devising a strategy to make the Republicans look like the Bull Connors of our time, you just stumbled across a winner. If you wanted a strategy to define gay couples as victims and fundamentalist Christians as oppressors, you’ve hit the jackpot. In a period when public opinion has shifted decisively in favor of gay equality and dignity, Kansas and the GOP have decided to go in precisely the opposite direction.

Instead of full-throated encouragement from the Republican national leadership in support of what the state parties are doing in their name, there is nothing but a conspicuous silence from the likes of John Boehner and Eric Cantor. Nothing from the congressional leadership and precious little from the conservative blogosphere either – tumbleweeds abound. There is a reason for this.

There exists a group of people whose behaviour is so odious and disgusting that it should not be spoken of in polite society; those involved in promoting it are amoral subversives perpetrating foul deeds which constitute an affront to God and to civilisation itself. Such people can barely be described as Americans, and certainly don’t deserve acknowledgement from Washington or protection by the law.

Unfortunately for the Kansas GOP, through their actions they are now that group, not the gay people they so love to persecute.


* Should be, but sadly is not currently the case in modern Britain, where the rights of the ultra-sensitive and the politically correct not to be offended supersede the right of the people to free speech.


Dick Cheney Has No Regrets

He hasn’t gone anywhere, in case you were wondering. And he remains entirely unrepentant about all of his decisions and actions while in office. The authorisation of and boasting about torture, the clampdown on civil liberties, all of it. Andrew Sullivan has curated some of the latest goings-on in Dick Cheney Land.

The Dish

The trailer for R.J. Cutler’s The World According To Dick Cheney, which premiered last March:

What has long struck me about Dick Cheney was not his decision to weigh the moral cost of torture against what he believed was the terrible potential cost of forgoing torture. That kind of horrible moral choice is something one can in many ways respect. If Cheney had ever said that he knows torture is a horrifying and evil thing, that he wrestled with the choice, and decided to torture, I’d respect him, even as I’d disagree with him. But what’s staggering about Cheney is that he denies that any such weighing of moral costs and benefits is necessary. Torture was, in his fateful phrase, a “no-brainer.”

Think about that for a moment. A no-brainer. Abandoning a core precept of George Washington’s view of the American military, trashing laws of warfare that have been taught…

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On Flirting With Social Conservatives

How many people does it take to give traction to a political story?

Two. Rand Paul, and the editor of Politico.

Not again.
Not again.

Rand Paul has been popping up here, there and everywhere in the US media recently, reminding us of all the sins from Bill Clinton’s two presidential terms and suggesting that Clinton’s actions from the late 1990s somehow represent a current-day Democratic Party war on women in 2014.

The whole thing is a fairly transparent effort by Rand Paul, a principled and capable first term senator, to increase his popularity with the wary social conservatives from the base of his party and (as a convenient bonus) to tarnish Hillary Clinton’s image a little in the event that she decides to run for president in 2017. I said as much as far back as 27 January:

Senator Paul is absolutely right to call out Bill Clinton’s behaviour for what it was – an abuse of his presidential power and symptomatic of a predatory attitude toward women. What makes this different from what the Republican Party has been doing, however, is the fact that the Lewinsky affair was a private indiscretion, and the harm done to women took place in the course of interpersonal relationships between those people directly involved. The Republican Party, on the other hand, has sought to push for legislative outcomes – around contraception, abortion and equal pay to name a few – that would impact all women in the United States. Private action vs. public legislative action. False equivalence.

Others said the same, and this should have been case closed. But Politico, knowing a click-generating story when they see one, happily takes the bait with a full-length feature by Liza Mundy in their magazine:

Like it or not, we’re having a national flashback to the 1990s—replete with images of thong underwear near the Oval Office, semen-stained blue dresses and all manner of sordid details we thought we’d outgrown. These nostalgic tidbits come to us courtesy of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, the possible 2016 presidential contender who, anticipating a matchup against Hillary Clinton, has lately been determined to remind America what happened the last time the Clintons occupied the White House. In a series of recent interviews, Paul has resurrected the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which first surfaced in sensational fashion in 1998, when the president was accused of having an affair, of sorts, with the 20-year-old White House intern.

Paul, to his credit, hasn’t dawdled on the lurid details—rather he’s framed the discussion as a matter largely of workplace behavior, challenging Democrats’ self-image as the party friendly to women. “If they want to be credible in saying they defend women’s rights in the workplace,” Paul said in an interview last week, Democrats should “disown” Bill Clinton, whom Paul considers “a predator, a sexual predator, basically.”

Like it or not? We could all have avoided the flashback if Politico had chosen not to play along by devoting a whole feature to achieving Rand Paul’s ends, but then Politico are not known for taking the high road.

Given the fact that the reanimation of the Lewinsky scandal is just part of a grand plan by Rand Paul to curry favour with the socially conservative base of the Republican Party, surely he could have picked a better issue to make his own personal cause? After all half of the congressional party has been guilty of similar indiscretions at one time or another – the only thing separating their actions from Clinton’s being their proximity from the Oval Office at the time they were committed. If Rand Paul hopes to make himself look good by contrast, it will be fellow GOPers against whom the contrast is drawn just as much as it is Bill Clinton. And those guilty Republicans – the likes of Newt Gingrich, for example – may not take kindly to a Rand Paul campaign whose main platform is a repudiation of the very actions that made them notorious.

But on closer examination, it appears that Rand Paul has few other options given his need to improve his standing with social conservatives without alienating his support from the younger, more libertarian wing of the party. The Atlantic sums it up well:

Given that one of his key selling points in the GOP primary will be his (relative) support among younger Americans, Paul can’t exactly crusade against gay marriage or the legalization of pot. Bashing Bill Clinton provides a politically safer way to champion moralism. It certainly helped George W. Bush, who in 2000 won Christian right votes, despite playing down social issues, because he played up his personal, anti-Clintonian religious and moral code. Paul seems to be attempting something similar, telling Maureen Dowd, “In my small town, we would disassociate, we would in some ways socially shun, somebody that had an inappropriate affair with someone’s daughter or with a babysitter or something like that.”

This is right on the money. Rand Paul is generally principled in his libertarianism and has few outlets with which he can appeal to socially conservative voters, many of whom grant an exception for big government when it comes to forcing people to conform to their moral code. There is no point in Rand Paul launching a crusade against gay marriage – it would sound false coming from his lips, and besides, that ground is doggedly occupied by Rick Santorum and (less plausibly) Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani et al. The same can be said for the issue of marijuana legalisation, where a U-turn would do harm to his younger base.

The one area where Rand Paul can really show his moral “uprightness” – since his libertarianism does not allow him to force his beliefs on others through law – is by recalling tawdry behaviour from a past Democratic president.

If this is done carefully, Paul may reap rewards. By emphasising Bill Clinton’s predatory attitude toward women, he also effectively criticises many of his Republican peers and rivals without having to go on the record as having explicitly done so.

The danger, as I have previously pointed out, will come about if Rand Paul persists in trying to create a narrative of a Democratic “war on women” comparable to that waged by the bulk of the Republican Party. The electorate is more than capable of distinguishing the difference between the private actions of an individual (Bill Clinton’s affairs and womanising behaviour) and the concerted legislative efforts of an entire political party to attack the rights of half the population.

There are certain former and likely future Republican presidential candidates  – think Cain, Bachmann, Palin, Perry and Santorum – who can run and maintain their popular support on a platform of deliberate, even joyful ignorance, and not suffer as a result. Rand Paul is not a member of this group. His popularity rests more on principles and reason, and on people who admire these things in a politician. Continuing his efforts to equate a presidential sexual indiscretion from the 1990s with the general policy platform of his party will begin to test their patience.

By all means, talk about the persecution of Christians abroad and the moral shortcomings of the forty-second president of the United States if you want to. They are real, legitimate issues and there are real, indisputable facts to back them up, even if some of them do date back to 1998. But to go any further in an attempt to court social conservatives – a volatile and unpredictable part of the Republican party – is dangerous for a libertarian.

There is only so much common ground that a libertarian can find with a social conservative. And if the libertarian knows what is good for him, he stops trying once he has found and exploited it.

Spare A Thought For Those Who Spy On Us

Today saw a rare moment of insight into the workings of Britain’s intelligence services and the mindset of those who lead them. It was but a fleeting glimpse, though – provided by a former employee, summoned to give evidence to the Home Affairs Committee in Parliament.


The Guardian provides a concise summary of former GCHQ chief Sir David Omand’s testimony, but the real showstopper is this question, posed by Conservative MP Michael Ellis, and the response he receives from Sir David:

Q: Have the unauthorised leaks have a negative effect on morale?

Omand says that his impression, from the outside, is that it has been a bitter blow.

There have been concerns about reputation.

And they have been accused of breaking the law. They have been accused of using the US as a backdoor, to circumvent UK law. Omand says he does not think that is true.

There has been an impact on families too, he says.

And he suggests there has been an impact on recruitment. Would parents encourage their children to join an organisation accused of acting like this.

In other words, as far as David Omand is concerned, the problem is not that the all-powerful British security agencies have been collecting bulk data on the personal communications of British citizens without reasonable suspicion of criminal intent. No, the real outrage is the fact that in protesting the draconian steps taken in the name of our safety (but without our knowledge or consent), having found out about them, we have hurt the feelings of the people who have actually been doing the spying. Never mind the right to privacy – the fragile egos of our intelligence analysts are apparently at stake.

Also of interest is Omand’s opinion on whistleblowing in general, as revealed in his response to a question from Labour MP Paul Flynn:

Q: Don’t we need whistleblowers?

Omand says he supports the free press. In a well-regulated society, you don’t need whistleblowers.

So there we have it. If society is well regulated – meaning, as far as I can tell, if the elites are free to do whatever they think needs to be done under a secret gentlemen’s agreement, and the public are willing to be docile and credulous and to relinquish any expectations of oversight or checks on power – then there would be no need for whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden.

And in a sense, Sir David Omand is right. A “well-regulated” society such as this would not need whistleblowers, because it would have sacrificed so much of its integrity and worth that there would be nothing left for an honourable whistleblower to defend.

This Parliamentary performance by the former head of GCHQ provides a very revealing insight into the self-entitled mind of our political and national security elites. In their worldview, not only are they perfectly entitled to treat the average citizen with suspicion and intercept their personal communications at will, but they should also be allowed to do so with total impunity, and without ever being made to feel the slightest bit bad about their actions, either through having their clandestine work revealed by a whistleblower, or by reading a negative newspaper editorials on the subject in the aftermath.

Omand is essentially telling us that our first thought as members of the public, when confronted with proof of massive government surveillance by whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden, should not be for ourselves, the people whom the security services supposedly exist to protect and serve, but rather for the sensitive feelings of the GCHQ operatives and their political masters.

If that strikes you as being slightly ludicrous, that’s good, because it should.

A fearsome building, apparently filled with very sensitive souls.
A fearsome building, apparently filled with very sensitive souls.


The impact of the Snowden revelations on morale within GCHQ should not be our overriding concern at this time. The organisation has been flagrantly violating the privacy of fellow British citizens – who should not be their target – unknown and unopposed, and a certain dose of guilt and shame for having done so is probably quite appropriate.

Of course, ultimate responsibility for the actions of the intelligence services rests with the government and the elected politicians who sanctioned the draconian use of surveillance practices without ever seeking the consent of the people. It is true that people working for GCHQ and the intelligence services are given orders and must carry those orders out as part of the job, and I also appreciate the power of organisational or institutional loyalty, and the corrosive effects of groupthink, both of which may play a part in allowing intelligence agency operatives to justify some of the actions that they take. But this does not absolve them of all responsibility.

Yes, the buck stops with the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, but good men and women at all levels within the hierarchy who knew of what was taking place should have stood up and said something. The sad fact is that were it not for a disgruntled and outraged American citizen blowing the whistle and releasing incriminating documents to the media, the British public would still be blissfully unaware of what has been taking place.

So where is this well-regulated society of which Omand speaks? In Britain, it clearly does not exist, as The Guardian’s summary of another of his responses makes clear:

Omand says a whistleblower has to have exhausted his other options. Edward Snowden could have gone to his employers, or to Congress. Imagine if he had walked into Congress, flanked by the editor of the Guardian, saying you have been lied to. He could have achieved his objectives, without having had to take more than 50,000 documents.

Is it not striking that when pressed to come up with an alternative to releasing sensitive intelligence documents to the media, the only alternative scenario to whistleblowing offered by Omand occurs in the context of the US government, and not the British?

Firstly, it is somewhat ludicrous to suggest that Edward Snowden could have followed this course of action. There were those in Congress, after all, who were aware of the NSA’s activities but who felt bound not to talk about them. And with unrepentant national security fanatics such as Peter King and Mike Rogers in the House, Snowden would likely have been disappeared before he had finished uttering his first sentence.

And secondly, how does Omand picture the same scenario playing out in the United Kingdom? Clearly not well, as he doesn’t expand upon the scenario during his testimony. So the concerned GCHQ analyst walks into Parliament flanked by Alan Rusbridger of the Guardian, and tells MPs that they had been lied to. What happens next? How, in any way, would that analyst’s objectives of raising awareness of the malpractice be accomplished? It wouldn’t.

Whistleblowing actions of the type carried out by Edward Snowden are sadly necessary, because it is simply not enough to flag misbehaviour by the national security complex to elected representatives in Parliament or Congress. In the US Congress there are a sufficient number of cheerleaders for Bush-era, PATRIOT Act-style security that the whistleblower could almost certainly expect immediate reprisal and persecution, and in the case of the British Parliament, there sadly exists a lazy general consensus that the security services should be left in peace to do whatever they think is reasonable to keep us safe.

In neither country, Britain or America, is there a plausible scenario where a concerned citizen could approach elected politicians with evidence of wrongdoing by the state and expect that their personal privacy and liberty to be respected and guaranteed in the aftermath. We know this because time and again, we see the majority of public officials (with a significant but outnumbered minority of brave dissenters) closing ranks to defend the intelligence agencies and the status quo. Therefore, the only way to bring a halt to these practices is by releasing information into the public sphere – which, it should be acknowledged, has been done in a very measured and sensitive way by Snowden, and is certainly no indiscriminate data dump – to increase public awareness and concern.

It would have been foolish to expect the former head of GCHQ to offer anything other than a full-throated defence of the work that he and his agency were so deeply involved in for so long. And so, in that sense, we learned nothing new from Sir David’s testimony to the Home Affairs committee today. There will be no immediate change of policy and no deathbed confessions of wrongdoing from anyone in power just yet.

And yet there was progress today. As well as the softball questions lobbed by sympathetic MPs with a similarly authoritarian outlook, Sir David Omand also had to face some tough and awkward questions. Even in centralised, deferential Britain, there are some MPs willing to do their job and represent the interests of their constituents.

Take this small ray of hope and combine it with Ed Miliband’s curious new-found interest in ensuring that the intelligence agencies receive more thorough public scrutiny and oversight, and you have the makings of what now passes for a good week for civil liberties and citizen privacy in 21st century Britain.