British plans for more secrecy, snooping invite criticism
LONDON BRITISH plans to expand the use of secret court hearings to protect intelligence shared by the United States and other allies and to extend state snooping on the Internet are vital to protect the public, Prime Minister David Cameron said on Wednesday, after a blitz of criticism from campaigners, lawmakers and even his own deputy.
Cameron is seeking to overhaul surveillance laws, saying new powers are needed to check email traffic, web browsing and interactions on social media sites, used by criminals and terrorists to communicate.
His government also hopes to pass legislation which would grant ministers power to order some civil court cases and inquests to be held in private, when they believe there is a risk of exposing secrets, particularly sensitive material shared by allies.
But amid public concern over the scope of the measures, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg warned he and his Liberal Democrat party, the junior partner in the country’s Conservative-led coalition government, could not support the plans without major changes.
Clegg said in a letter to Britain’s National Security Council that proposals for more surveillance must be thoroughly debated with the public. Fears over security “cannot be allowed to ride roughshod over the principles of open justice,” he wrote.
In a report published on Wednesday, Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, a panel of lawmakers from the House of Commons and House of Lords, insisted the government had failed to provide proof that it needed to hold some court hearings in secret. The plans relate only to civil cases involving claims for damages, not criminal prosecutions.
Cameron insisted his security plans would likely be included in the government’s annual announcement of its planned new legislation, scheduled to be made next month by Queen Elizabeth II. “There is still time to deal with everybody’s concerns,” he said.
“As I see it, there are some significant gaps in our defences, gaps because of the moving on of technology, people making telephone calls through the Internet, rather than through fixed lines,” Cameron explained.
There are “also gaps in our defences because it isn’t currently possible to use intelligence information in a court of law without sometimes endangering national security,” he insisted.
The proposals for ministers to be able to authorise secret court hearings come after two legal tangles related to former Guantanamo Bay detainees.
In one case, a British judge ordered the release of a previously secret summary of CIA documents on ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee Binyam Mohamed’s mistreatment in Pakistan in 2002.
Ministers say disclosure has hampered intelligence sharing between Washington and London. The White House complained that exposing the material undermined a longstanding convention that nations don’t disclose intelligence shared by their allies.
“The Americans have got nervous that we are going to start revealing information, and they have started cutting back on what they disclose,” Ken Clarke, Britain’s Justice Secretary, told BBC radio. “I can’t force the Americans to give our intelligence people full cooperation,” he added.