UK Tribunal Rules GCHQ Conducted Illegal Surveillance And Must Destroy Legally Privileged Documents
from the unlawful,-unnecessary-and-disproportionate dept
A couple of months ago, we reported on a surprising admission by the UK government that GCHQ has been carrying out illegal surveillance by monitoring privileged conversations between lawyers and their clients. As we noted at the time, the reason for this sudden access of conscience was simply that it knew it was going to lose an imminent case before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), the body that considers complaints about UK government surveillance. And that, indeed, is what has just happened. As the human rights organization Reprieve, which helped bring the legal action, explains, not only has GCHQ been found guilty of illegal spying, it has also been ordered to destroy the materials it collected as a result:
Today’s decision marks the first time in the IPT’s fifteen-year history that it has upheld a complaint against the security services. It is also thought to be the first time the secretive tribunal has ordered an intelligence agency to give up surveillance material.
The Reprieve post has more details about the case, which involves Sami al-Saadi, a former opponent of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. al-Saadi and his family were kidnapped in a joint MI6-CIA operation and ‘rendered’ to Libya in 2004, as was his colleague, the Libyan politician Abdul-Hakim Belhaj and his pregnant wife:
Both families have brought civil claims against the then-Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, former MI6 counter-terror head Sir Mark Allen, and the UK Government for their kidnap. The al-Saadi family settled their civil claim in December 2012 for 2.2 million pounds; the Belhaj claim comes before the [UK] Supreme Court this year. A Metropolitan Police investigation into both kidnappings, Operation Lydd, is thought to be near conclusion
Whatever happens with those cases, the latest IPT judgment is another important step in forcing the UK government to acknowledge that its mass surveillance programs broke the law in numerous ways. Moreover, as Richard Stein, the lawyer who represented the families before the Tribunal, pointed out:
Today marks the end of GCHQ’s standard boilerplate response that its activities are lawful, necessary and proportionate. GCHQ unlawfully spied on privileged legal communications for years, and the secret oversight mechanisms failed to stop it.
That alone would be reason enough to celebrate this decision. But the IPT’s ruling is unsatisfactory in other respects:
The IPT made ‘no determination’ in favor of Mr Belhaj and his wife. The IPT can make ‘no determination’ either if there was no spying, or if the IPT finds that spying did take place but was lawful. But the couple may never know the precise reasons for the decision.
That’s an indication that still more must be done to bring greater transparency and accountability to the UK’s surveillance programs. Fortunately, as the UK government continues to lose the fight against legal challenges to its activities, it is being forced to move in that direction, albeit very slowly.