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MI5 Chief’s Condemnation of Snowden’s Leaks Is an Unabashed Attack on Journalism

MI5 chief Andrew Parker (Official British Government Photo)

The director of MI5 delivered a speech in the United Kingdom, which emphasized the threat of terrorism to the UK and also focused upon the “damage” the publication of material from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden had caused the intelligence agency’s ability to protect the country.

The Guardian was never named in the speech at the Royal United Services Institute in Whitehall, but the words MI5 chief Andrew Parker spoke were intended for journalists, editors and staff with the media organization that has continued to publish documents on surveillance programs, which the NSA or the UK’s spying agency, GCHQ, are involved.

In a piece of classic state-identified journalism, The Telegraph in the UK began their story on Parker’s speech with this sentence, “Andrew Parker, the director general of the Security Service, said the exposing of intelligence techniques, by the Guardian newspaper, had given fanatics the ability to evade the spy agencies.” [It said Snowden used his position to steal documents and Russia was “sheltering” Snowden when, in fact, he has been granted temporary asylum.]

Parker, as he was finishing his speech, declared:

What we know about the terrorists, and the detail of the capabilities we use against them together represent our margin of advantage. That margin gives us the prospect of being able to detect their plots and stop them. But that margin is under attack. Reporting from GCHQ is vital to the safety of this country and its citizens. GCHQ intelligence has played a vital role in stopping many of the terrorist plots that MI5 and the police have tackled in the past decade. We are facing an international threat and GCHQ provides many of the intelligence leads upon which we rely. It makes a vital contribution to most of our high priority investigations. It causes enormous damage to make public the reach and limits of GCHQ techniques. Such information hands the advantage to the terrorists. It is the gift they need to evade us and strike at will. Unfashionable as it might seem, that is why we must keep secrets secret, and why not doing so causes such harm. [emphasis added]

In so many words, Parker essentially said The Guardian had helped and was helping terrorists escape GCHQ surveillance. He planted the idea in the mind of all individuals listening that terrorists could attack at any moment because of The Guardian. After all, he implied that The Guardian had eroded the “margin of advantage” intelligence agencies have over terrorists to detect plots and stop them.

Not a word was based in reason because the true breadth and scope of GCHQ’s capabilities remains unknown. A blueprint for what the agency can do will never be published in the free press in Britain or any other country.

Each story published aims to promote debate on the powers being granted to security services or agencies. However, that is exactly what Parker and the MI5 apparently do not want citizens in the UK to be able to have.

This is why Parker stated, “The idea that we either can or would want to operate intensive scrutiny of thousands is fanciful. This is not East Germany, or North Korea. And thank goodness it’s not. Successive Governments have made careful decisions about both the scale and powers of organizations like MI5, proportionate to the threats, and have gone no further. Britain is a democracy that rightly prizes the freedom of the individual. We do not want all-pervasive, oppressive security apparatus.”

Well, that clears everything up. No reason to be concerned about any of the remaining documents from Snowden that have yet to be published.

Also, Parker stated, “I am very pleased that we are a highly accountable Service. It is critically important to the sort of country we all want to live in that organizations like mine do not have free rein, and equally that we are not politically directed. We operate under law. I am in charge of our operations, but am accountable to the Home Secretary. She in turn is accountable to Parliament and the British People, responsibilities that I know she treats with the utmost seriousness.”

The intelligence services of Britain are not just accountable but highly accountable. Not East Germany, no Stasi. Definitely not North Korea. China or Russia? Doesn’t matter cause checks are in place.

In case anyone was concerned that almost all oversight happens in secret, Parker said, “The fact that much of this oversight necessarily happens out of public hearing leads some commentators to mistake silence for weakness. That is plain wrong. From my experience, I know that all of the bodies I have mentioned and their supporting staff pursue their responsibilities very fully, professionally and conscientiously.”—Which means most if not all members of the Intelligence and Security Committee and wider Parliament know when to stop asking questions and halt investigations and when not to launch any investigations at all.

Big Brother Watch, a civil liberties organization based in the UK that is backing a lawsuit against the GCHQ, responded, “The fact [Parker] does not feel GCHQ’s reach should be publicly discussed is in stark contrast to the US government’s efforts to maintain public confidence by bringing further transparency and oversight to the reach of the NSA.

“People will rightly question why, if the US congress can publicly debate the reach of their agencies, the British public should be denied any details of what is happening here,” he added.

The American people have been treated to a transparency charade where the administration declassifies material that can help the intelligence community and President Barack Obama’s administration make the case for only making very, very minor adjustments to processes and policies which Snowden has exposed. In the Senate, Dianne Feinstein, head of the intelligence committee, if she has her way, will preserve all the programs exposed and even give the NSA some new power to engage in surveillance. A review panel with insiders, which has suspended operation because of the government shutdown, is going to advise the president on what changes might (not) need to be made. British citizens understandably wish their government could follow the lead of the United States and fake reform like this.

The NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander and Director for National Intelligence James Clapper have both made clear their belief that the media is sensationalizing leaks and publishing reports that are inaccurate and misleading. They have suggested, at times, that terrorists are changing their tactics because of Snowden’s releases. But never have they insinuated with such brashness that something terrible could befall the United States at any moment.

Annie Machon, an MI5 whistleblower, described at a hearing held by a European Union Parliament civil liberties committee, the state of press freedom in the UK.

“There is a raft of legislation that can be used to threaten the media and is indeed being used at the moment to stifle media debate about the Edward Snowden case. These include injunctions [and] superinjunctions, where you can’t even discuss there is an injunction. There are public interest immunity certificates, which the government can use that are like injunctions. They use the Terrorism Act to threaten journalists. They also have a voluntary system called the D-Notice Committee and a D-Notice has been issued to stifle legitimate debate within our media about Edward Snowden,” she explained.

The British government has already forced The Guardian to symbolically destroy hard drives in the basement of the Guardian office. The drives were destroyed while agents stood by and watched, even though they had no files on them because the US division has all copies of the files. Yet, they complied because the government could have taken legal action and shut down reporting on files related to GCHQ and the NSA entirely.

The Guardian partnered with The New York Times to keep releasing reports. That is what led to the incredible revelations around US and UK spy agencies working to defeat encryption, which were published on September 5.

Over a month later, the British government and its security apparatus remains committed to isolating The Guardian so it is intimidated into not publishing anymore stories on the leaks. The MI5 chief gave a rare public speech to escalate the pressure.

Front pages of three top newspapers/tabloids in UK (via Tom Phillips or @flashboy on Twitter)

What the UK government cannot accept is what Snowden said in a chat in June: “Truth is coming and it cannot be stopped.”

Maybe the government convinces The Guardian not to publish stories on certain documents. Maybe MI5 gets its way and contributes to a chilling effect that undermines journalism in Britain. But that does not mean what it is trying to keep secret from UK citizens and others around the world will remain concealed.

There are organizations or websites that cannot be bullied by security service agents from the UK and they will publish.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."