Despite our special relationship with the Brits and the fact that they have been staunch allies, every once in a while you run across a story which reminds you just how different our two cultures still are. (And maybe why we revolted in the first place back in the day.) Part of the trove of Wikileaks documents has turned up yet another salacious bit of info which has journalists up in arms and the the British government back on their heels. It seems that their Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ, part of their intelligence operations in cooperation with MI5) has been in the business of randomly sweeping up communications from and between journalists.
GCHQ’s bulk surveillance of electronic communications has scooped up emails to and from journalists working for some of the US and UK’s largest media organisations, analysis of documents released by whistleblower Edward Snowden reveals.
Emails from the BBC, Reuters, the Guardian, the New York Times, Le Monde, the Sun, NBC and the Washington Post were saved by GCHQ and shared on the agency’s intranet as part of a test exercise by the signals intelligence agency.
The disclosure comes as the British government faces intense pressure to protect the confidential communications of reporters, MPs and lawyers from snooping.
The journalists’ communications were among 70,000 emails harvested in the space of less than 10 minutes on one day in November 2008 by one of GCHQ’s numerous taps on the fibre-optic cables that make up the backbone of the internet.
But wait, you might be thinking. They can’t do that, can they? Well, if you ask them, they’ll get a bit huffy.
A spokesman for GCHQ said: “It is longstanding policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters. Furthermore, all of GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework, which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the secretary of state, the interception and intelligence services commissioners and the parliamentary intelligence and security committee.
“All our operational processes rigorously support this position. In addition, the UK’s interception regime is entirely compatible with the European convention on human rights.”
The attitude that GCHQ shows toward journalists is, if we’re to be honest, probably about the same feeling that our government has about the Fourth Estate much of the time, except the Brits are a lot more free to do something about it and never need to apologize. Some of the contents of their internal communications were less revealing in terms of national secrets and more interesting in their open admission as to precisely what a pain in the backside the journalists are and why they should be monitored.
One restricted document intended for those in army intelligence warned that “journalists and reporters representing all types of news media represent a potential threat to security”.
It continued: “Of specific concern are ‘investigative journalists’ who specialise in defence-related exposés either for profit or what they deem to be of the public interest.
“All classes of journalists and reporters may try either a formal approach or an informal approach, possibly with off-duty personnel, in their attempts to gain official information to which they are not entitled.”
It goes on to caution “such approaches pose a real threat”, and tells staff they must be “immediately reported” to the chain-of-command.
I particularly enjoyed the phrase, what they deem to be of the public interest. Here in the United States if we found members of Congress or the White House either doing or saying anything like this they would be hounded out of town on a rail after being drawn into endless hearings. In London this is business as usual, and if you don’t like it somebody from MI5 will be along to straighten out your poor attitude presently. But on the plus side, take a look at the building that GCHQ has. It’s totes awesome. (Picture at the link above.) Instead of a Pentagon they’ve got a flying saucer.
The upside to this story is that no matter how bad things get over here, you can still be glad that you live in America. Things are worse pretty much everywhere else in terms of freedom and transparency.