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Tuesday, October 29, 2013 

Only the little people can be spied on.

Last week, the NSA/GCHQ spying on everyone and everything scandal finally achieved critical mass.  Not, you understand, due to the revelations that the NSA had been collating the metadata behind the phone calls and messages of millions of ordinary Europeans, but because they had also been monitoring the calls of Angela Merkel, as well as other major leaders.  Cue the summoning of US ambassadors, demands for such practices to end, and an agreed statement at Friday's EU summit that suggested such abuses damaged intelligence sharing.

As Juan Cole writes, it's only when friends and allies discover they've been subject to such practices that those who've previously defended the spies to the hilt decide their mates have gone too far.  Tapping into fibre optic cables in pursuit of mastering the internet, working behind the scenes with tech companies to monitor social networking sites, and operating a scheme where GCHQ spies on the US and the NSA spies on the UK to avoid breaching laws, that's all to be expected.  Intercepting Frau Merkel's "handy", though, that's beyond the pale.  Obama might have known about Prism and all the rest, but listening in to former president Sarkozy's chats with gorgeous pouting Carla Bruni?  He wasn't aware of anything like that, honest.

Luckily for our own prime minister, any manoeuvring around say, Andy Coulson or more prosaic discussions with Sam Cam over which box set to chillax with on any particular night won't have been saved for posterity in the NSA archives, as best friends don't listen in on each other's calls.  Or, if they do, they aren't admitting to it.  The so-called "Five Eyes" agreement where the intelligence agencies of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, probably means there isn't much that isn't shared in any case, which was why it was always nonsensical for the last government to claim the release of the "seven paragraphs" would mean the turning off of the tap.

This meant dear old Dave could stand up in the Commons yesterday and maintain his previously taken position that everything the security services do is wonderful, completely legal and beyond reproach.  The real danger remains the continuing release of such secrets, rather than damage to long-standing relationships when embarrassing details are inadvertently made public.  Indeed, when we want to know the truth about how the Snowden files have affected the work of MI5 and co, you simply have to turn to the Sun, which has a long track record in holding power to account.  Keeping things subtle as always, the paper illustrated the whisper it received from a "security source" that the "terrorists have gone quiet" since the Guardian started printing its stories alongside a photo of the WTC ablaze.

Hugh Muir suggests this will be the line taken by the heads of 5, 6 and GCHQ when they have their first ever live chat in front of the cameras at the intelligence and security committee.  It can't be proved and it can't be disproved, like so much else when it comes to the spooks, and so is perfect for sages such as Malcolm Rifkind and Hazel Blears to pronounce upon.  One suspects the real reason behind the Sun story is the Graun at the weekend revealed how the spooks have previously kiboshed reforms not to their liking.  Apparently concerned that the introduction of intercept evidence into the courts could reveal their surveillance capabilities were far beyond what was known, irony of ironies, they worked with the Home Office to lobby against the proposals, including by putting forward trusted lieutenants such as Lord Carlile and Lord Stevens to speak to the media.  Lord Carlile it's worth remembering was the "independent" reviewer of terrorism legislation, who just last week said the Graun had committed "criminal acts".  Never has been there been so obvious an example of regulatory capture.

That very illusion of independent oversight is exactly what the government and the spooks are seeking to ensure carries on.  It doesn't matter Rifkind has already said newspapers can't make an informed decision on what will and won't affect national security, and so it follows should never publish anything without their permission, we must still go through the motions. The same was the case with Cameron's veiled threats yesterday: as Roy Greenslade says, he can't make the DA-Notice committee do anything, while any attempt to pursue an injunction would take press freedom back years, as well as possibly breaching the ECHR. Such has been the tenor of the debate though, it's understandable that no chances are being taken. And it's not even close to being over.

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