Reforming snoops swap transparency for hush

David Cameron’s government doesn’t do transparency when the establishment would find it inconvenient.

You’ll still get transparency where the government wants reform, as in local government, the NHS, public administration, and was the case yesterday, the train transport infrastructure. The government cannot condemn a public service loudly enough if it’s one it wants to break up and sell off.

It is less outspoken when it comes to the security services, whose abuses of power and privilege have been one of the scandals of our times, but who are yet still championed by government ministers with the self-sustaining lenience of an aristocracy.

So Home Secretary Theresa May’s bouffant statement to parliament on Thursday about surveillance reforms followed a different pattern than the one you might expect of a Tory minister addressing the illegality of a public service in her charge.

She didn’t do anything like the assassination that Patrick McLoughlin, secretary of state for Transport, did on Railtrack the same day.

She did more like the polite papering-over the Intelligence and Security Committee did when it addressed mass-surveillance abuses last Autumn; and like David Anderson QC, who May commissioned specifically to do a papering over, did in his Investigatory Powers Review earlier this month.

Anderson adhered to the establishment policy of secrecy when he came to that part of the UK’s totalitarian policing apparatus that happened to be based on dubious legal authority. This was the Tempora programme for snooping just about everyone’s communications, exposed by The Guardian newspaper’s Snowden revelations.

It was the policy, he noted, called NCND: Neither Confirm Nor Deny. Ignore the questions, in other words, and they are more likely to go away. They would whip up a storm if they admitted it, and their powers might be confiscated. Government and corporate press officers do it frequently. If you refuse to deny anything that is false, then nobody can call you out for denying something that is true.

Anderson didn’t confirm or deny himself whether he knew any of the things the government had refused to confirm or deny. He commended the Investigatory Powers Tribunal for declaring Tempora legal in theory last December, despite being unable to confirm or deny whether it was actually true, as though it was possible to administer the law entirely in theory, and to judge something of uncertain morality in isolation from public opinion. They forget trust is something shared.

Anderson’s job meanwhile was to create a legal framework for the multitude of dubious surveillance wheezes the security services have developed in the 15 years since they were last regulated, to change the law to fit the practice. Perhaps then they might feel more free to talk about it.

Establishment fluffers on parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) took the same approach when they put on their show hearings about the Investigatory Powers Bill last October. It was as though MPs on the committee had lost the ability to use their ears when Tempora came up – perhaps with the exception of Lord Butler, who at least briefly started getting warm in his questioning of foreign secretary Philip Hammond. The foreign secretary said he would answer this public enquiry’s questions in private.

As May said herself last Thursday, it’s a sensitive subject.

So she did nothing like the sort of hatchet job you would expect of a Tory minister who was exposing failures she had managed to root out of her department prior to selling it off.

She did more like the prime minister’s office itself did on 27 May when it issued a background brief on the Queen’s speech, in which the government’s Investigatory Powers Bill was formally announced.

The PM’s brief said the government was drafting an Investigatory Powers Bill to modernise the law on communications data.

And this bill to modernise the law on communications data, it said, would modernise the law on communications data.

That would mean giving police surveillance tools to close a “capability gap”, so they could carry on snooping on people’s communications. And it would include some regulatory oversight of police surveillance as well. It covered all this in as good as many words as it’s taken here.

And if you thought that was a lot to take in at once, the PM’s brief went further. It listed the benefits the Investigatory Powers Bill would bring.

Thus it would address a gap in police capabilities to keep snooping on people’s communications, it said. And it would include some regulatory oversight of police surveillance as well.

So basically, it said, the bill to modernize the law on communications data would respond to the report David Anderson QC did for Theresa May. Anderson’s report was much longer than the PM’s statement. But it basically said the same thing.

That was it. Short and sweet and stated twice in case you missed it: the establishment knows full well what it’s going to do to beef up the state’s surveillance powers but it won’t tell you just yet because it doesn’t want to scare the horses; it will eke the details out in dribs and drabs in coming months in a manner that ensures the people are contented with whatever the state decides to do.