As the CIA and the media play a game of “where’s Edward Snowden“, the phone hacking scandal, this whole CIA/MI6 “Prism” business and the Tories try to push through yet another attack on people’s privacy we have another round of allegations regarding the misuse of the authorities powers of surveillance. Last night’s Dispatches on Channel 4 described a policy of systematic police surveillance that would put many totalitarian regimes to shame.
Now the police would have us believe that they only use undercover officers or the powers granted to them by various anti-drug or anti-terrorism legislation in the most extreme of circumstances. But we now have allegations that the police tried to use undercover operations to cover up the Steven Lawrence affair. This is, to say the least shocking. Bad enough that they screwed up the investigation through institutional racism, but they then attempted to setup and entrap his family and friends whose only crime was to stand up for their dead son’s rights.
For years members of lefty groups, be they anti-racism, animal rights, climate activists or anti-capitalists have complained about how they were being victimised and spied on by the police. Or that the bulk of trouble orchestrated at demo’s was by agent provocateurs from the security forces. Now we have evidence to suggest that this isn’t just idle paranoia. It turns out that numerous undercover officers had indeed infiltrated many left wing groups. Many had sexual relationships with activists despite in some cases being married (this is what the rest of us call “adultery“….or state sanctioned rape!), even fathering children. It would seem that one of the original authors of the infamous London Greenpeace “Mc Libel” pamphlet was in fact an undercover officer.
And of course all of this comes on the back of the allegations previously aired surrounding Mark Kennedy. The whole reason why that trial of activists collapsed was because it became clear that the protesters were originally planning to cancel the direction action (or at the very least sleep on it) but were talked into staying by him and other under cover officers.
If this happened in any other country we’d call it political suppression and abuse of power. Is it any wonder we see the irony of Edward Snowden hoping from China to Russia, two countries hardly known for their commitments to human rights.
And of course there is a further issue of miss-allocation of resources. I mean those undercover officers, rather than wasting their time on a bunch of fluffy tree huggers, could have been doing something useful. Such as going after drug dealers or terrorists or how about infiltrating a few banks and getting people on the inside, so next time there’s a financial scandal we can put these guys away for a good long stretch. Indeed, speaking of terrorists, the (alleged) Woolwich murders were known to the police, but they hadn’t arrested them because they were trying to recruit them as spies!
Quite clearly the security forces have massively abused the powers granted to them. Indeed I would argue that giving such powers to the security services has proved entirely counter productive as it means there more worried about using them to cover spare themselves embarrassment than actually protecting the country from genuine threats. Therefore I would argue for a rolling back of many of these powers in response. I mean if we in the universities were granted a pile of money we could spend in private and it turned out we were using them to undertake “research” into beer and drugs, I think we’d have the cash taken off us pretty quickly and quite a few of us done for fraud.
It is true that there are people out there whom the state wishes to keep an eye on, but procedures need to be in place to prevent abuse of powers. Like the guards in a Stanford prison experiment the security services need to know that they will be held to account for any abuse of powers.
A simple solution would be to extend the rights of Freedom of Information to include police or MI5 & MI6 surveillance operations. In short if the cops spy on us they can only do so with a court order and they only get to watch for a certain period of time (say no more than 2 months) before that surveillance comes under review by another judge. If its clear that those being spied on are not a serious threat (i.e. one that warrants the use of under cover officers or wire taps that could be better deployed elsewhere) or that there’s no progress towards an arrest, they have to stop. Furthermore after a period of, say 5-10 years, they have to disclose that fact that they spied on people and thus giving the public and the courts the opportunity to determine if they overstepped the mark.
If the officers described in the examples above knew there was a very real risk of their actions being made public, potentially leading to public ridicule, dismissal from the force, arrest and imprisonment, I suspect said abuses of power would never have a occurred and never will occur. Its only fair that if the police or spooks want to watch us that we get to watch them back in return.