These qualifications recognise that sometimes there will be an overriding public interest in the information being released prior to the intended publication date. Public authorities should not be able to avoid putting information in the public domain by adopting unreasonable publication timetables or an 'intention' to publish where there is little prospect of that happening within a reasonable timescale.Given the seriousness of the allegations about UK security agencies' role in facilitating extraordinary rendition and torture, there is evidently a very strong public interest case for this preliminary report to be immediately released under the Freedom of Information Act. That is especially true given the inexplicably lengthy delay that we have already had to endure. It's worth also pointing out that despite the sort of behaviour detailed above, the government continues to audaciously insist it is committed to transparency. Just last week the Cabinet Office was proclaiming "wide-ranging new commitments to bring more of the benefits of transparency into people’s everyday lives." Cabinet minister Francis Maude was quoted as saying that "transparency is an idea whose time has come." Unfortunately, the section of Maude's own department responsible for implementing transparency does not appear to have received the memo — and is currently flouting the Freedom of Information Act in a case involving the withholding of important information that the public clearly has a right to know. I have lodged a formal complaint about the Cabinet Office's conduct with the Information Commissioner's Office — so watch this space. UPDATE, 4 December 2013: Late last month, the Information Commissioner's Office replied to the complaint I filed about the UK government's non-response to my request that it release the rendition/torture report. An official from the ICO said he had contacted the government's Cabinet Office to confirm that my request had been received and to give the government a 10-day deadline to contact me. The ICO reminded the government of its obligations onder the Freedom of Information Act and noted that it "may consider taking enforcement action" should similar complaints arise (read the ICO's correspondence here). However, despite this light reprimand from the ICO, incredibly I've still received no response from the government about the rendition report. The 10-day deadline expired yesterday and I've heard nothing — I've not yet so much as received an acknowlegement that my initial request is being dealt with, even though it was submitted more than two months ago (the government is supposed to respond within 20 working days; it's now been more than 50). This means that the Cabinet Office, which likes to tout its transparency credentials, is not only actively flouting its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act — it has also now failed to act on a formal request made by the authority that enforces the FOIA law, the ICO. Before the end of the week, I'll be following up my complaint with the ICO in the hope that more serious action can be taken. Of course, I'll post further updates here with any new developments in this strange case as and when they arise.
Thursday, 7 November 2013
Last year, the UK government was presented with a preliminary report about an inquiry into British security services' alleged role in the extraordinary rendition and torture of terror suspects. The government said at the time that it would make the report public — but it has never surfaced. The report was produced as part of the so-called 'Detainee Inquiry', set up by prime minister David Cameron in 2010 to investigate allegations of British security agencies' involvement in the mistreatment of individuals accused of terror offences. Spy agency MI6, for instance, has been blamed for helping to facilitate the abduction and subsequent alleged torture of a Libyan Islamist and his pregnant wife, who were covertly 'rendered' from Bangkok and reportedly taken to a Libyan prison run by the Gaddafi regime in 2004. Headed by retired judge Sir Peter Gibson, the Detainee Inquiry was supposed to look into these allegations and others. It was scrapped in 2012 amid controversy because the government said that it clashed with ongoing police investigations into some of the same cases. But a preliminary report was produced by the inquiry and sent to the prime minister on 27 June 2012. At the time, the government issued a statement saying that the report focused on "preparatory work to date, highlighting particular themes or issues which might be the subject of further examination." Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said that the government was committed to publishing "as much of this interim report as possible." Almost 18 months on, however, where is the preliminary report? That is exactly what I have been trying to find out. And the UK government is not returning my emails. In September, I sent a Freedom of Information Act request seeking a copy of the report to the government's Cabinet Office. Under the FOIA, the government has 20 working days to issue a response. 31 working days have now passed and I have sent three separate emails related to the request. I have received nothing in response — not even an acknowledgement informing me that my request has been received. This means that the government is violating its legal obligations, according to an official I consulted at the Information Commissioner's Office, the public body that enforces access to information legislation in the UK. I submit quite a lot of FOI requests, and I can't think of another occasion when a government department has flat-out ignored a request in this way. It is very unusual. Normally, the procedure is that you will receive an acknowledgement within a few days. And a couple of weeks later the respective department will either send you the information or refuse to release it, usually citing some flimsy national security secrecy exemption. Notably, the chap who runs the website Spy Blog has also previously attempted to obtain a copy of the preliminary report. His efforts have so far been stonewalled. But unlike me, Spy Blog has at least been privileged enough to receive responses from the Cabinet Office, most recently in July. The Cabinet refused to disclose the report to the website, claiming that officials were busy "clearing the report for publication" and adding that they expected that it could be published "in the autumn, although no date has been set." It is not clear why the Cabinet Office has needed almost a year and a half to "clear" a report for public consumption. At best, it looks to me like a case of incompetence and bureaucratic inefficiency; at worst, it is a red herring being deployed to delay the release of controversial information for political convenience. Either way, the delay suggests that there could be some interesting details contained in the report. And the government is running out of excuses to postpone publication. Indeed, under section 22 of the Freedom of Information Act, the government can decline to disclose information requested if it is already intended for future release. However, Ministry of Justice guidance on the Section 22 exemption explicitly states that:
Tuesday, 23 July 2013
On 30 October 2006, an Islamic school in Pakistan was targeted in a missile strike that killed up to 81 people, most of whom were reportedly children, some as young as seven. At the time of the strike, which took place in the town of Chenagai in the tribal area of Bajaur, Pakistan's military claimed responsibility, saying it had targeted the school — known as a madrassa — because it was being used as a terrorist training facility. However, an anonymous former Pakistan official, described as an ex-"key aide" to then-President Pervez Musharraf, later reportedly claimed that the attack had been carried out by a US drone, according to the Sunday Times. The US denied any role, saying it was "completely done by the Pakistani military." Now, a newly published report has raised fresh questions about exactly who was behind this horrific incident. A leaked Pakistan government document, published by London's Bureau of Investigative Journalism on Monday, lists the Bajaur case among a series of US Predator drone strikes and NATO-backed attacks in Pakistan between 2006 and 2009. The Bureau says that the document shows the attack was the result of "a single drone strike," though the document does not specify whether a drone or other aircraft was involved. So who carried out this controversial attack? At the time of the strike, Pakistan's army spokesman said that it had been carried out by Pakistan military helicopter gunships that fired four or five missiles into the madrassa. One local villager told the BBC he had "heard helicopters flying in and then heard bombs." An NBC news correspondent, who was reportedly about a mile away from the madrassa at the time of the incident, said that it "was dark and very early in the morning when the blast occurred. And then I heard helicopters over the village of Chenagai where the madrassa school is located." Analysts speculated that Pakistan's military may have not had the skills required to conduct the helicopter strike, because it was apparently conducted at 5am while it was still dark and had the hallmarks of an elite operation. Hours after the attack, Bill Roggio at the Long War Journal suggested that a US special operations team may have been behind it. "Look for signs of Task Force 145 having carried out this raid," Roggio wrote, "with unmanned Predators firing Hellfire missiles, and possibly C-130 and helicopters following up." Others had an alternative theory. On October 31, 2006, Syed Saleem Shahzad at the Asia Times wrote:
Recently, Islamabad agreed with NATO that it could conduct operations in Pakistan from across the border in Afghanistan... Significantly, Pakistan and Taliban authorities struck a peace deal in Bajour only two days ago and were scheduled to sign a document to that effect on Monday. This lends credence to the possibility that it was NATO and not Pakistani forces that made the raid.Among those who died in the attack was the leader of the madrassa, a reportedly pro-Taliban radical cleric named Maulana Liaqat. Pakistan officials also claimed that Ayman al-Zawahiri — who was then Osama bin Laden's deputy — had used the madrassa to train suicide bombers. That would certainly have given both US and NATO forces a motive to want to target the building. And Pakistan has covered up for US drone strikes in the past. But still, there is still no concrete information that has been presented confirming beyond doubt that a US drone or any other US or NATO military aircraft was involved. Indeed, secret US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks in 2010, four years after the strike, did not hint at any US or NATO role. US officials writing in classified cables dated from 2006 described the incident alternately as a "Pakistan military strike against a madrassa/militant training camp" and a "Pak-Mil attack on an extremist madrassa." Even with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's publication of the leaked Pakistani document attributing the attack to NATO forces or a US drone, in my view, the facts remain murky and contentious. And that is perhaps one of the most shocking elements of this story — that seven years on there is still such a lack of clarity about the circumstances of this grave incident, involving the reported deaths of dozens of innocent children. Without an answer to such a simple question — who pulled the trigger? — there can be no accountability, no closure, no recourse for justice for the families of those who lost a child on that day in Chenagai. It is an incident that seems to symbolise the bloody, faceless brutality of the ruthless covert warfare that has become a staple feature of the so-called War on Terror over the past decade, especially in the tribal regions of Pakistan. But just because there may be dangerous, high-level terror targets operating in these places, military forces, wherever they are from, should not get a pass to kill and maim with impunity. For that reason alone, the madrassa strike surely requires serious further scrutiny — perhaps from UN special rapporteur Ben Emmerson, who is currently investigating the issue of civilian drone deaths.
Saturday, 20 July 2013
Earlier this week, the UK's official communications interception commissioner published his annual report. The commissioner releases statistics every year that offer an insight into the levels of surveillance being conducted by UK authorities, including police, security and intelligence agencies. The latest report provides more evidence that the trend in recent years has been towards a general increase in surveillance of communications. In 2012, the report shows, there were a record 570,135 authorisations for police and other agencies to obtain so-called "communications data." This can include subscriber information about suspects' phone and email accounts, as well as call and email records showing who a suspect is phoning/emailing and when. It does not include the actual content of the communication. Notably, the 570,135 figure is a 15 percent increase on the figure for 2011 and amounts to about an average 1,562 communications data authorisations every day. In addition, the commissioner noted in his report that "979 communications data errors" were made by authorities in cases involving the wrongful collection of data from innocent individuals. The botched surveillance had serious ramifications, with six members of the public "wrongly detained / accused of crimes" as a consequence. Here's a quick graph I've knocked up showing how, with the exception of a unusual drop in authorisations in 2011, UK authorities have been increasingly obtaining communications data as part of investigations in recent years: The same trend is reflected in the latest statistics on the interception of communications. Interception is when the authorities obtain a warrant, signed off by the secretary of state, enabling them to secretly eavesdrop on phone calls or read emails and texts. There were 3,372 interception warrants authorised in 2012, which represents a 16 percent increase on the figure for 2011. It is crucial to note that a single interception warrant can encompass large groups of individuals. It is not known exactly how many people were swept up in the 3,372 warrants because these figures are, unfortunately, not published. Here's a graph that illustrates the steady increase in interceptions since 2008: While surveillance is on the rise, as the above graphs show, the UK government has been arguing that it does not have enough digital spying capabilities and needs more surveillance powers. The government's case may have recently been damaged, however, by leaked secret documents, published by the Guardian in June, that revealed how UK spy agency GCHQ was tapping into internet cables and reportedly monitoring some 600 million "telephone events" every day. The exposed extent of GCHQ's spying offered a rare and startling insight into the sweeping scope of surveillance already being conducted by the UK government, and seemed to affirm what the UN's special rapporteur on free expression, Frank La Rue, warned about in an unprecedented report published just weeks before the leaks. "Technological advancements," La Rue wrote, "mean that the state’s effectiveness in conducting surveillance is no longer limited by scale or duration."
Friday, 12 July 2013
Edward Snowden is the NSA whistleblower whose document leaks have in recent weeks cracked open the US and UK governments' secret surveillance programs to an unprecedented level of public scrutiny. The former Hawaii-based NSA contractor, 30, is currently holed up in Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow, Russia, as he attempts to seek asylum in a number of countries — fearing persecution if he returns to the United States. But Snowden's options are limited. The US government has revoked his passport while exerting extraordinary pressure on countries across the world in order to prevent the whistleblower from gaining asylum. This has raised questions about the US government's commitment to international law and has led a number of human rights groups to weigh in with criticism of US officials' actions. Today, Snowden is said to have set up a meeting with groups including Amnesty International in order to discuss his next steps. Below, I've compiled a quick list for my own reference of the various rights groups that have issued a statement on the Snowden case so far. There may be others that I've missed. If so, add a comment at the bottom or send me a link via Twitter and I'll update this post. American Civil Liberties Union "In addition to infringing on Mr. Snowden's right to asylum, [the US government's] actions also create the risk of providing cover for other countries to crack down on whistleblowers and deny asylum to individuals who have exposed illegal activity or human rights violations." (Statement, 11 July.) Amnesty International "The US authorities’ relentless campaign to hunt down and block whistleblower Edward Snowden’s attempts to seek asylum is deplorable and amounts to a gross violation of his human rights." (Statement, 2 July.) Article 19 “The manhunt for Edward Snowden must be stopped. More energy is being spent on arresting one whistleblower that exposed human rights violations than has been spent on finding and arresting perpetrators of war crimes or crimes against humanity." (Statement, 5 July.) Government Accountability Project (US) "Snowden disclosed information about a secret program that he reasonably believed to be illegal. Consequently, he meets the legal definition of a whistleblower, despite statements to the contrary made by numerous government officials and security pundits." (Statement, 14 June.) Human Rights Watch "[The US government] should not apply a double standard by working against other governments that might extend asylum in this case." (Statement, 3 July.) “Edward Snowden has a serious asylum claim that should be considered fairly by Russia or any other country where he may apply. He should be allowed at least to make that claim and have it heard... Washington’s actions appear to be aimed at preventing Snowden from gaining an opportunity to claim refuge, in violation of his right to seek asylum under international law.” (Statement, 12 July.) Index on Censorship "The mass surveillance of citizens’ private communications is unacceptable – it both invades privacy and threatens freedom of expression. The US government cannot use the excuse of national security to justify either surveillance on this scale or the extradition of Snowden for revealing it." (Statement, 24 June.) Norwegian PEN "The threat of criminal prosecution against whistleblower Edward Snowden on the charge of espionage is an allegation against an individual who has used his right to free speech in order to uncover serious abuse, not worthy of a country that abides by the rule of law. By going out with this information, Edward Snowden has questioned the democratic openness of US counter-terrorism strategy. The practice uncovered in the United States is in clear conflict with the principles of a democratic constitutional state." (Statement, 3 July.) Reporters Without Borders "Now that Edward Snowden, the young American who revealed the global monitoring system known as Prism, has requested asylum from 20 countries, the EU nations should extend a welcome, under whatever law or status seems most appropriate... [European Union] countries owe Snowden a debt of gratitude for his revelations, which were clearly in the public interest... American leaders should realize the glaring contradiction between their soaring odes to freedom and the realities of official actions, which damage the image of their country." (Statement, 3 July.)
Tuesday, 18 June 2013
Following disclosures by the Guardian earlier this month about a US National Security Agency internet surveillance program called Prism, it has emerged that UK government officials issued a so-called "D notice" in a bid to censor coverage of spy tactics. The D notice following the NSA leaks was reportedly issued to news organisations including the BBC on 7 June, the day after the Prism story broke. Prism is a system used by the NSA to monitor emails, file transfers, photos, videos, chats, and other data. Intelligence gleaned from the system has been passed to GCHQ, the UK's version of the NSA. The notice to the media organisations was marked "Private and Confidential: Not for publication, broadcast or use on social media," according to Jeff Stein at And Magazine. It added:
There have been a number of articles recently in connection with some of the ways in which the UK Intelligence Services obtain information from foreign sources. Although none of these recent articles has contravened any of the guidelines contained within the Defence Advisory Notice System, the intelligence services are concerned that further developments of this same theme may begin to jeopardize both national security and possibly UK personnel.It particularly warned against reporting on:
specific covert operations, sources and methods of the security services, SIS and GCHQ, Defence Intelligence Units, Special Forces and those involved with them, the application of those methods, including the interception of communications and their targets; the same applies to those engaged on counter-terrorist operations.The D-notice system was first set up in 1912 and operates in accordance with a voluntary code — providing "advice and guidance to the media about defence and counter-terrorist information the publication of which would be damaging to national security." In 2010, for instance, a D notice was reportedly issued prior to WikiLeaks' release of thousands of US government diplomatic cables. A D notice has no formal legal authority, but defying it can make journalists vulnerable to prosecution under the UK's Official Secrets Act.
Monday, 17 June 2013
On Democracy Now today there was an insightful interview with Hong Kong legislator Charles Mok on the potential next steps for US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. Snowden is currently believed to be in Hong Kong after passing a batch of NSA documents revealing top-secret surveillance programs to the Guardian, the Washington Post, and the South China Morning Post. US authorities have initiated a criminal investigation over the leaks and will probably pursue Snowden's extradition in the weeks and months ahead. Mok talks about what that process could entail, and says that though Hong Kong enjoys independence from mainland China on many issues, the international magnitude of the Snowden case means the final decision that will determine his fate is ultimately likely to be made by central government in Beijing:
Please understand that at least we have a one-country, two-system system in Hong Kong and between Hong Kong and the mainland. So our laws are different from the laws in China. And we do have a border and so on. We do have different governments, even though as a regional government, we do report to the central government. So I think what we want locally is to make sure that we can protect [Snowden] and make sure that we can live up to our core values and make sure that we treat this person according to all the rights that he should be getting under Hong Kong law. And... exactly what I don’t want to see, is that this sort of political influence to be interfering into the justice process, the judicial process that Mr. Snowden may end up having to get in Hong Kong. If, for example, the US starts by contacting the Hong Kong government to try to initiate an extradition, and if Mr. Snowden decides to try to get asylum or apply for refugee status here in Hong Kong, he — if he chose to do that, if the process comes to that point, he should be getting all the rights. [...] If the US started to initiate a process [to] say that we want to arrest this person and start an extradition process, then Mr. Snowden could apply in Hong Kong for refugee status. And then there would be at least two tests: first by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees to determine whether or not, for example, that he will face torture at home and whether or not this is political persecution and so on, and second, also by the Hong Kong court. [...] He will be accorded rights to appeal all the way up to our highest court in Hong Kong. So, assuming that money and financial issues — because you do need to get lawyers and so on — assuming those are not an issue, these processes in the past could have taken quite a bit of time. But... if [Snowden] isn’t successful and there has to be a final decision to be made about the extradition, our chief executive in Hong Kong, which is pretty much [like] our president... he will have to make the final decision. But because this case very likely will involve foreign relations, then he has to consult the central government. So, in the end, it means that the process can be a pretty prolonged process, and, second, Beijing will probably come into the equation to make a final decision in the end.You can watch the full interview here.
Thursday, 13 June 2013
General Keith Alexander, the chief of the US National Security Agency, today appeared before a Senate committee and was quizzed publicly for the first time on issues related to the agency's recently revealed surveillance programs. Most of the questions Alexander faced concerned the secret mass retention of Americans' phone records, exposed by the Guardian last week, which the spy chief said are necessary to conduct retrospective surveillance of patterns of communication during counter-terrorism investigations — enabling the agency to go "back and time" to monitor who has called whom, when, and for how long. Perhaps the most notable point in Alexander's appearance came during an exchange with Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley (Democrat), who asked a few specific, probing questions about the section of the Patriot Act (215) being used to justify storing the records. Merkley seemed to believe the NSA had exceeded its authority in mass retaining the records, and I think his comments pinpoint a crucial part of the legal debate about the scope of the surveillance that we will see more of in the weeks ahead. Merkley also pressed for secret interpretations of the law being used by the government to justify the surveillance to be declassified and published, a point that Alexander seemed to agree was necessary though said he couldn't guarantee it because he was "not the only decision maker in the administration." See the relevant part of the exchange below:
Sen. Merkley: You referred to section 215 [of the Patriot Act] and 215 requires for an application for production of any tangible thing. It says in it that this application must have a statement of facts showing reasonable grounds that the tangible things sought are relevant to an authorised investigation. So we have several standards of law embedded in this application: A statement of facts, reasonable grounds, and tangible things that are relevant to an authorised investigation. Now as it's been described in this conversation and in the press, the standard for collecting phone records on Americans is now all phone records, all the time, all across America. How do we get from the reasonable grounds, relevant authorised investigation, statement of facts, to all phone records, all the time, all locations? How do you make that transition and how has the standard of the law been met? General Alexander: So this is what we have to deal with the court and I think that... we go through this court process... it's a very deliberate process where we meet all of those portions of the 215. We lay out for the court what we're going to do and to meet that portion we just said. The answer is we don't get to look at the data, we don't get to swim through the data.... Sen. Merkley: Let me stop you there, because these are requirements to acquire the data, not to analyze the data, to acquire the data ... this is the application to acquire the data. So here I have my Verizon phone, my cell phone, what authorized investigation gave you the grounds for acquiring my cellphone data? General Alexander: On this part here, on the legal standards and stuff, on this part here I think we need to get Department of Justice and others because it is a complex area and you're asking a specific question. I don't want to shirk that but I want to make sure I get it exactly right. And so I do think part of what we should do is perhaps at the closed hearing tomorrow walk through that with the intent of taking what you've asked and seeing if we can get it declassified and out to the American people so they can see how exactly how we do it because I do think that should be answered. Sen. Merkley: In between these two pieces, the FISA court gives an interpretation of the plain language of the law, their interpretation is what translates the standards of the law into what is governable in terms of what you can do. I had an amendment last December that said these findings of law that translate the requirements that are in the law into what is permissible needs to be declassified so we can have the debate. I believe that what you just said is that you want to have that information to be declassified that explains how you get from these standards of law to the conduct that has now been presented publicly. Did I catch that right and do you support the standards of law, the interpretations of the FISA court of the plain language to be set before the American people so we can have this debate? General Alexander: I think that makes sense. I'm not the only decision maker in the administration on this process so there are two issues I'm not equivocating. I just want to make sure that I put this expectation exactly right and that is I don't want to jeopardize the security of Americans by making a mistake and saying yes we're going to do all that, but the intent is to get the transparency there. So Senator I will work hard to do that, and if I can't do that I will come back to you and tell you why and we will have that discussion and run it out and I defer to the chair of the intelligence committee. But I think that's reasonable to get this out. Having said that I don't have the legal background that perhaps you have in this area. I want this debate out there for a couple of reasons. I think that what we're doing to protect American citizens here is the right thing. Our agency takes great pride in protecting this nation and our civil liberties and privacy and doing it in partnership with this committee, with congress and the courts. We aren't trying to hide it we are trying to protect America so we need your help in doing that. [...] Sen. Merkley: General I thank you for your statement of support. I also want to thank chair Feinstein who helped develop and send a letter expressing this concern about the secrecy of the interpretations of the FISA court ... I think it's time that [the FISA interpretations] become understandable and public because otherwise how in a democracy do you have a debate if you don't know what the plain language [of the law] means. I do have concerns about that translation and I will continue this conversation.