Yesterday Sir Richard Dearlove, a former head of MI6, proposed to the Global Strategy Forum think-tank that the largely discredited ISC (Intelligence & Security Committee) which oversees UK intelligence (GCHQ, MI6 and MI5) should be replaced by “citizens groups” to ensure that Britain’s intelligence services are made more accountable and transparent. Given the widespread public concern, post-Snowden, with state surveillance, the failures of UK intelligence in preventing certain high-profile acts of terrorism and the recent confirmation by ISC and more latterly via Privacy International that GCHQ deploys bulk collection of data, it’s timely (if not curious) that such a proposal is now being made. Demanding the impossible (as the Situationists once said)? Why not…
So can the surveillance state be ‘liberated’. The short answer is probably no. But there can be far more accountability. Dearlove’s ‘NGOs’ would likely include Liberty, or Privacy International, or Big Brother Watch, or the Open Rights Group – all fine organisations. But suppose that in addition to those NGOs surveillance experts (as UndercoverInfo mischievously suggested in a satirical article on GCHQ) such as Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, Glenn Greenwald, Duncan Campbell and Jacob Appelbaum were included?. Unlikely?
In his speech Dearlove raised a number of pertinent issues. For example, about the dangers of ascribing an ‘iconic status’ to jihadis (no doubt he was thinking about ‘Jihadi John’). Both media and Government have been guilty in this regard. With the Government it has all been about creating a culture of fear, partly so that the intelligence services can extend their surveillance of the populace. A week or so back UndercoverInfo ran an article about the spectacle of terrorism (and those who promote this spectacle) and how it can work against the liberties many of us regard as sacrosanct. We argued that in the age of social media and reality TV shows it is not surprising that terrorism has been commodified and its adherents, despite their barbaric acts, given near-celebrity status – thus, we are served terrorism as spectacle, which in itself is a form of terrorism – an assault on our rationality on an almost daily basis. Moreover, terrorism as spectacle is in itself a catalyst for exacerbating the divisions within society – particularly those divisions that serve only to accentuate the differences between cultures.
Dearlove also mentioned how he believed how families and the community should take a more direct and active role in our collective security. As an example he wondered if the families of the three teenage school girls from London who travelled to Syria to join ISIS had talked with their children about the danger of ISIS and the politics of the Middle East generally. Parents generally are reluctant to talk with their children about politics (and vice versa). Nor are many parents aware of what their children are getting up to on the Internet – whether it is bullying or being bullied, sexual grooming, or political grooming (by ISIS). Parents are often reluctant to intervene in case they are seen as overbearing and intrusive. Yet, perhaps surprising to some, there are several tools available that enable the (legal) monitoring of social media accounts (e.g. Facebook, Twitter etc) of others. More importantly, responsibility for taking action to prevent grooming or – worse – abduction – should not be left to the police. For too long people have relied on the authorities to prevent such abuse (and we have seen the dreadful consequences of this dependence in relation to widespread child sex abuse).
Dearlove went on to propose social, cultural and educational responses to grooming and related problems. He was not just talking about institutions (again, the child sex abuse epidemic was partly a result of the failure of councils, police, schools and social workers) but people at community level. We saw a recent example of this ‘direct action’ when Mohammed Butt, the leader of Brent Council, together with the parents of the three teenage boys, who had left for Syria via Barcelona, acted swiftly and sought help within hours, resulting in the three boys returned safely (from Turkey) to the UK. The three are now on bail and are unlikely to face charges. After all the furore of what happened to the three teenage girls who made it to Syria in February, the UK Government made it clear that should the three girls eventually return to Britain they, too, would not be prosecuted. In other words, the Government has finally realised that these cases are not about terrorism but about the safeguarding of vulnerable children.
Note on Al-Rashed, the Syrian who met up with the three girls in Turkey and facilitated their crossing the Turkish-Syrian border…The latest information is that the person he called “Matt”, whom he met up with at the Canadian Embassy in Amman to pass on intelligence about ISIS (or so he claims), liaised with someone called ‘Claude’, who was also based at the Canadian Embassy. Al-Rashed maintained that “Matt” is British, though it is is possible that a) Al-Rashed mistook the accent or b) that “Matt” may be a Brit (MI6?) working for the Canadian Government. Al-Rashed also claims that the expenses he incurred for plane and bus tickets (not clear if he meant for himself or also for the people – including the three girls – he trafficked) was paid for by the Canadian Embassy. So, there are still many unanswered questions about Al-Rashed’s dealings, the role of the Canadian Embassy and CSIS (Canadian version of MI6) and of “Matt”. More broadly there are questions about Western intelligence services re their knowledge of – and possible involvement in – the trafficking of potential jihadis and whether, like Al-Rashed, they have been ‘playing both sides’.