A political row is once again brewing over data and privacy. This week David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation published his report into the future of surveillance legislation.
In it he accepted that our intelligence agencies need to carry on being able to access data in bulk and he remained open to enhancing our ability to get more data if an operational and legal case can be made (which means revisiting the so-called “Snoopers’ Charter”). He accepted the need for the retention of powers introduced in emergency legislation last summer and suggested a number of reforms including a new commissioner to provide oversight on the entire system.
But potentially problematically he also proposes getting much more involvement from the judiciary in the process. This includes all authorisations for interception warrants (such as the content of emails) to be taken away from the Secretary of State and handed over to a judge. This is a big step and a potentially very unfortunate one. Politicians are able to assess the diplomatic landscape when approving warrants, and not just the legal technicalities; they may need to sign warrants in the middle of the night in an emergency; and are ultimately accountable in a way judges are not.
Of course this whole area is one over which there is a huge public interest. HJS has involved itself in that debate for two principle reasons. The first is that the debate needs to be far better informed than it currently is. As David Anderson himself said this week, an exceedingly small number of people actually know what they are talking about in this area. We would add, however, that almost everybody has an opinion. The gap between interest and knowledge in this area urgently needs to be addressed.
But the second reason is that the gap should be filled by people who are not hostile to the principles of intelligence and national security. In scoping out the ground for our recent report we discovered that almost all of the organisations and groups who have been most vociferous and most quoted in these matters are groups which (with the obvious exception of government agencies) have expressed a remarkable degree of hostility to matters which are absolutely essential for the proper running of a national security apparatus. These are groups and organisations who simultaneously wish to criminalise our intelligence services, make them so transparent they could not possibly operate and transfer almost all oversight powers from politicians to lawyers.
We believe that there is a public interest in the intelligence agencies being able to do their job of keeping the public safe and that politicians are best placed – and ultimately most accountable – to oversee that process. This is not, or should not be, a minority pursuit. It is, rather, a matter of the utmost public and political significance.
FROM THE DIRECTOR’S DESK
It’s often the case that you can assess whether you are hitting the mark, or not, as an organisation, by what your detractors say about you. If you have gotten them sufficiently riled that they feel the need to spend time and resources on combating your message, then it is a safe bet to assume you are succeeding. If they don’t even attempt to engage in intellectual debate and instead try to attack you as an organisation – playing the ‘”man” rather than the “ball” as it were – then you’ve pretty much hit the bullseye. Thus it proved this week with the convening of a conference at the University of Bath which spent a good portion of its time mentioning The Henry Jackson Society as standing in the way of its pro-Islamist and anti-Western agenda.
Featuring such luminaries as Norman Finkelstein and Max Blumenthal as its star attractions, HJS was honoured to receive a whole panel session dedicated to itself at the conference. Our session was headlined by the Director of the Cordoba Foundation – an innocent-sounding organisation until you realise that no less a person than British Prime Minister David Cameron has called it a “political front for the Muslim Brotherhood” – and the notorious former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg, Director of pro-terrorist group CAGE. HJS has of course been instrumental in public education about CAGE’s pro-terrorist agenda in past months.
As I have written before, we wear criticism from sources such as these as a badge of pride. We are clearly doing something right if strenuous efforts are being made to oppose us by some of Britain’s most dangerous ideologues. I don’t think it is any coincidence that as our effectiveness in researching and highlighting public policy problems in the counter-terrorism and extremism areas has increased in recent years, so has the level of ire directed at us.
So I would like to conclude this week by thanking our staff for their dedication to their work and in ensuring that our message continues to get heard. Their jobs are not easy ones. But it is of the utmost importance that they are prepared to do them for the greater good.
Dr Alan Mendoza is Executive Director of The Henry Jackson Society
Follow Alan on Twitter: @AlanMendoza