There’s a severe storm brewing, and I’m not talking about the weather system that is currently battering its way through Southern Britain. Somewhere, Edward Snowden is smiling, as the can of worms he has opened seems to be growing exponentially and internationally on a weekly basis. This last week brought allegations that the United States' NSA and other security agencies have monitored the phone calls of up to 35 world leaders, causing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande to publicly demand talks with the United States to resolve the situation.
Queue the media frenzy.
Reports are surfacing that the NSA monitored 60 million Spanish calls in a month. German reports claim that Merkel’s phone had been bugged from 2002 until 2013. The NSA is in full deny, deny, deny mode about whether or not a report that Barrack Obama knew of the Merkel surveillance has merit. The U.S. spying “row” (an English term for scandal or controversy, the origins or linguistic wisdom of which I have still yet to understand) has overshadowed an EU summit and has sent the White House into full-scale damage control mode.
When I first saw this story break last week, my immediate inclination was to wonder how Merkel and other leaders could be (and to what extent they actually were) surprised that this could occur. As Glenn Greenwald has noted:
“Note how leaders such as Chancellor Angela Merkel reacted with basic indifference when it was revealed months ago that the NSA was bulk-spying on all German citizens, but suddenly found her indignation only when it turned out that she personally was also targeted”.
This is not at all to suggest that allegations of spying on various heads of state, and any other citizens for that matter, are not troubling and problematic. But surprising? As Steven Aftergood, head of a project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists notes, “The rule is that everybody spies on everybody – except when they have an agreement not to... And then, they may still do so”.
Other commentators have echoed the same sentiment:
“Almost all governments conduct surveillance or espionage operations against other countries whose activities matter to them. Some are friends; some are enemies; some may just be in interesting locations or have ties to other countries that are of interest".
So while the sheer scope and breadth of the alleged nature of spying by the NSA and other U.S. security agencies may be surprising, the fact that it is happening, has been happening, and may very well continue to happen is, sadly, unsurprising.
For further discussions on the aftermath of the revelations about the NSA and GCHQ’s communications surveillance plans, this commentator recommends attending a FREE Panel this Wednesday at BPP University in London. Click here for details.
Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 to be Challenged in Strasbourg
Some of you more loyal readers will recall one of my earliest posts on the David Miranda case and the powers used to detain him under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. This week brought news that the powers will be reviewed by the European Court of Human Rights, albeit in the case of Sabure Malik, a British Investment banker who was stopped by police at Heathrow upon his return from Saudi Arabia, where he had traveled for the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca with his mother. Full details of the case can be found in the Court’s admissibility decision here.
David Barrett, Home Affairs Correspondent for the Telegraph, takes issue with the Court’s decision to hear the challenge here, in a story entitled “Strasbourg human rights court threatens key counter-terrorism powers”. As the title suggests, the story provides for the kind of analysis that my last post argues is contributing to a societal attitude in the U.K. that human rights decisions are “externally imposed” by Strasbourg.
According to Barrett, Strasbourg has “given the go-ahead to a legal challenge seeking to strike out the controversial powers”. Here, Barrett glosses over a crucial legal nuance that the average reader may not be sensitive to: the Strasbourg Court will only rule on the compatibility of Schedule 7 with the ECHR, it does not have the power to formally strike down U.K. legislation. Although the U.K. government has agreed to “abide by” rulings of the ECtHR (which usually carries a strong presumption that it will implement the Court’s decisions), there have been instances where it has not done so, most notably in the context of the prisoner voting decision.
This is not just an argument about semantics. The average media consumer, absent legal training, may very well take this line of reasoning to mean that Strasbourg is once again ready to “strike down” what Barrett calls “a key counter-terrorism power used to protect Britain against extremists”. This is the kind of analysis, absent legal nuance and playing on national sensitivities, that can obscure the relationship between Strasbourg and the U.K., leading the average Briton to embrace the widespread anti-HRA and anti-ECHR sentiment my last post argued was currently present in the nation. It’s a similar kind of analysis that was present throughout the ongoing legal saga that was Abu Qatada’s eventual deportation to torture.
Adam Wagner, a leading U.K. human rights lawyer and regular contributor to the excellent U.K. Human Rights Blog has also taken issue with what he calls “hall-of-mirrors” reporting from Barrett. He notes the aforementioned obfuscation of legal nuance, and also criticizes Barrett’s “partial and inaccurate summary of the recent Joint Committee on Human Rights report on antiterrorism powers”. While Barrett described the report as a “thorough inquiry by British MPs and peers that has already concluded the powers are compatible with human rights law”, Wagner has usefully illustrated that the JCHR still has severe reservations about the utilisations of this power.
The rest of the article further contributes to an us vs. them mentality that is frequently seen in the reporting of terrorist activities and cases pertaining to anti-terrorism legislation. There is repeated mention of David Miranda and Snowden, including quotes by the director general of MI5 calling the latter’s leaks a “gift to terrorists”, and the likening of the disclosures to actions “of the Cambridge spy ring during the Cold War”.
This kind of analysis lacks rigour and nuance and, just as significantly, paints an inaccurate picture absent proper discussion of both sides of the debate. The news media in this country, and all around the world, need to be held to a higher standard of impartiality and vigour. As Wagner notes, Barrett’s previous coverage of the JCHR’s report at least expressed some aspects of opinions from both sides of the debate on the schedule 7 powers.
The kind of one-sided analysis present in Barrett’s most recent article is dangerous and counter-productive. The general public deserve reporting that will allow them to make informed decisions about their attitudes towards human rights instruments. Idealistic? Maybe, but a guy can dream.