by Glyn Moody

Filed Under:
gchq, ipt, surveillance, uk

GCHQ Oversight Tribunal Has To Ask GCHQ's Permission To Reveal GCHQ's Wrongdoing

from the what-could-possibly-go-wrong? dept

One of the key themes to emerge in the debate about surveillance is the oversight of the agencies involved, and to what extent it is effective. In the US, that has been put into stark relief by news that the committee that is supposed to keep an eye on the spies was itself spied upon. And now over in the UK, we learn that things are just as bad when it comes to the equivalent oversight body, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT). Its powers sound impressive:

The Tribunal can investigate complaints about any alleged conduct by, or on behalf of, the Intelligence Services - the Security Service (sometimes called MI5), the Secret Intelligence Service (sometimes called MI6) and GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters).

The scope of conduct the IPT can investigate concerning the Intelligence Agencies is much broader than it is with regard to the other public authorities. The IPT is the only Tribunal to whom complaints about the Intelligence Services can be directed
Unfortunately, the IPT's credibility as the public's watchdog for the intelligence services has just been seriously undermined by the following information published by The Guardian:
A controversial court that claims to be completely independent of the British government is secretly operating from a base within the Home Office, the Guardian has learned.

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which investigates complaints about the country's intelligence agencies, is also funded by the Home Office, and its staff includes at least one person believed to be a Home Office official previously engaged in intelligence-related work.
It gets worse:
the IPT will not say whether GCHQ had disclosed the existence of its bulk surveillance operations, which attempt to capture the digital communications of everybody -- including those people who complain to the tribunal.

Nor will it disclose whether it has issued any secret ruling on the lawfulness of those operations, on the grounds that the rules under which it operates stipulate that it cannot do so without the permission of GCHQ itself. It has not sought that permission on grounds it knows it would not be given.
So the body tasked with overseeing GCHQ has to get GCHQ's permission before it can reveal any wrongdoing by GCHQ, which it doesn't bother doing when it knows it would be refused. Isn't oversight a wonderful thing?

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Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. icon
    That One Guy (profile), Mar 7th, 2014 @ 2:18am

    Oh look, another sham 'oversight' group to give yet another spying agency a 'legal' cover and allow them to claim that there's 'oversight' to keep any abuses to a minimum...

    At this point you have to wonder if the US or UK thought of the idea first, though whoever was second obviously didn't waste any time coming up with their version.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), Mar 7th, 2014 @ 2:51am

    because secret legal systems to protect secret law breaking is the best system.

    You'd think if Anonymous had done the exact same things these officials did, there would be a worldwide person hunt. I mean they nudged PayPal and people were threatened with huge fines and sentences... one would hope that the people who sold out their citizens, violated every supposed right of those citizens, and continue to hide how far they have gone might face more than some skiddies who nudged a website.

    Nothing will happen, nothing will change.
    They no longer answer to the people who put them in power, and those people don't seem to give a shit. Let the world burn. Perhaps when the flames finally get big enough, destroy enough, people might wonder how all of this happened while they were busy ignoring it. Let them look up to the people who wasted time trying to save them all along and scream save us, because we'll probably say no.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 7th, 2014 @ 2:57am

    If you have nothing to fear, you have nothing to hide.

    All these agencies certainly fear proper transparency and oversight, thus they must have one hell of a lot to hide.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    David, Mar 7th, 2014 @ 3:37am

    Cozy job

    It's like the ethics inspector of the Mafia reporting to the Godfather himself.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    That One Guy (profile), Mar 7th, 2014 @ 3:38am


    While normally that saying is pretty cliche and inaccurate, in this case, and other cases of government agencies doing everything they can to hide their activities behind the veil of 'national security'/'it's classified', I'd say it's pretty much dead on.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    spodula (profile), Mar 7th, 2014 @ 5:22am

    Cue yes minister joke.

    "The Official Secrets Act is not to protect secrets, it is to protect officials."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 7th, 2014 @ 6:05am

    no wonder the last two GCHQ 'spec trials' found no wrong doing! if those conducting the trial/inquiry are being hindered from the get-go, how would the real truth come out? it's all very well having the heads of the security forces attend an inquiry, if the dont have to answer the questions, how ill anything bad they have done be found out and further, how can changes be made to protect everyone?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 7th, 2014 @ 6:31am

    Well, we tried.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 7th, 2014 @ 7:27am

    This sham oversight will come back to bite their ass, and will damage even legitimate tasks.

    It is illegal under ECHR to begin with (right to fair trial, and right to privacy).

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    wec, Mar 7th, 2014 @ 2:20pm

    IMO, any oversight committee should have same security clearance as the highest official they have oversight power on. Meaning they should have the rights to access all the documents of the agency they have oversight authority over.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    I'm_Having_None_Of_It, Mar 11th, 2014 @ 7:03am

    If the IPT can't investigate GCHQ without its permission, can the Intelligence and Security Committee? I can't wait for my MP to provide another "Look over there!" excuse for the inaction of our so-called watchdogs.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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