The law sometimes throws up odd situations…
Take the issue of communication surveillance as an example. We have a law, the Regulation of Investgatory Powers Act, which ostensibly governs when, where and in what circumstances the Police and Security Services can intercept and monitor telecommunications traffic; phone calls, e-mails, etc - all in the name of fighting crime and national security.
However, despite having these powers, any evidence obtained under RIPA remains inadmissable in UK courts on the grounds that taking this evidence into open court would jeopardise the work of these same intercepts.
This leaves me in the somewhat strange situation of agreeing with Boris Johnson when he says this “sounds like phooey”.
Actually, to digress for a moment, I have to admit that, even as a Tory, I have quite a lot of time and no small degree of respect for Boris.
Do I agree with him? Not that often - but having watched him operate its clear that it would be very unwise indeed to be taken in by the bumbling ‘upper class twit of the year’ routine that most people will associate with him from his appearances on ‘Have I Got News For You’. Look past the Bunter-ish public schoolboy act and watch him at work in a more serious political arena and it quick becomes apparent that he’s no fool and, pound for pound, possibly the sharpest political operator in the current Tory party. Certainly not an opponent to be taken lightly.
Getting back to ‘business’ however, I have to agree with Boris that there’s something about this whole business of legal telecommunications monitoring being inadmissable in court which rings very false indeed. Something in it ’smells’ of there being much more to this situation than is first apparent.
RIPA is a pretty dislikable law to begin with and one which, during its passage through the commons, I was very vocal in opposing. It’s not that I don’t see the necessity for intercepts where justified in dealing with organised crime or genuine threats to national security nor do I disagree with the principle of these practices taking place within the law and being properly regulated - better that the people carryout this surveillance are accountable to someone than no one at all.
What really bothered me about the Act is something which, as a Labour Party member, saddens me greatly, namely the tendency of the Blair government to treat the judiciary and judicial process as being rather an inconvenience and something, if possible, to be avoided if the opportunity presents itself.
RIPA of just one example of this in practice and allows a variety of people, from the Home Secretary down to fairly senior police officers to legally authorise communications intercepts, a right I’d much prefer to see vested in the judiciary where it properly belongs. I say one example as there are unfortunatly many others ranging from the trend towards ’summary justice’ as a means of dealing minor offences through ‘fixed penalty notices’ - which, broadly speaking, puts the ‘offender’ in the position of being found guilty unless they are willing to go to court to prove their innocence - to the latest round of anti-terrorist laws which seek to reintroduce internment onto the statute books, something I had thought long gone (and good riddance, too, or so I thought).
None of this, however, goes any way towards explaining why evidence obtained from communications intercepts remains inadmissable in court or why the Government believes that this would compromise the ability of the security services to carry out such surveillance.
Logically, its nonsensical to try to suggest that criminals, terrorists, etc may be unaware of the possibility that the ’spooks’ may be on to them and listening in.
I lived in Moseley for a while a few years back, an area of Birmingham which, as anyone who knows it well will know has a well-established drugs culture (mostly cannabis) and from personal experience can testify to the fact that even for small, personal use, transactions, dealers and their customers have their own ‘code’ which is used when making arrangments over the phone. If the average dope smoker looking to pick up an eigth of hash for recreational use takes such precautions then it stands to reason that major traffickers, terrorists and all sorts of other people involved in serious criminal activity will be at least as careful and, more likely, far more cautious when it comes to communications by phone, e-mail etc.
Add to that that the courts have more than sufficient powers to protect identities, sources, etc. where necessary and it pretty soon becomes obvious that this whole argument is about as watertight as the post-iceberg Titanic.
So we’re back, again to why? Why adopt a practice which, logically, makes no sense and which seems to get in the way of bringing criminals to justice?
Call me a suspicious beggar (and have your tinfoil beanies ready) but I can’t help but wonder if the problem isn’t so much whether the spooks are listening and who they’re listening to as who’s spooks are actually doing the listening.
The existance of our own electronic surveillance capabilities is no real secret at all courtesy of the Thatcher government’s banning of Trade Unions at GCHQ during the 1980’s and the furore that ensued from that decision. What far fewer people are aware of is that its not just our boys out there listening on British soil, Britain also plays host to a number of US listening stations including one of the largest in Europe, which is situated in North Yorkshire - this is one of those official secrets which is no real secret at all - even the Quakers know its there. (link to a PDF, BTW)
Ostensibly, as these bases are on UK soil, our trans-Atlantic ‘friends’ should be playing by our rules and observing UK law when they tune in - at least that’s what the government reckons. Anyone who’s ever run across the US military on their own (leased) bit of Blighty will know that it doesn’t quite work out that way - in the eyes of the US military, US military bases are considered to be islands of Uncle Sam’s territory which happen to be on foreign shores and once you step into their domain you play by their rules, not those of the ‘host’ nation.
Faced with the current government’s apparent disdain for judicial process you might think this perhaps not such a bad thing. After all, if you’re playing under US rules then you still have a proper and unequivocal right to silence unlike our own watered down version which goes something like:
“You sort of have the right to remain silent but if you don’t ‘fess up straight away we’ll treat any story you come up with later as an admission of guilt even if you deny everything, so there!”
However, look at the whole Guantanamo Bay issue and things become much less reassurring as its then obvious that degree to which the US actually plays by its own cherished and constitutionally protected rules depends very much on the proximity (or lack thereof) of a Federal Court Judge… and Yorkshire’s a long way away (3,000 miles of so) from any of those - unless there’s one over here on holiday being regaled with the delights of sticking you hand up a cow’s arse for no better reason than that they filmed ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ up there a few years back. Any anyway, Yorkshire being the place it if, if you could yourself a Federal judge they’d probably be too pissed on Theakston’s Old Peculiar to care about your civil liberties anyway.
Ok, I’ll conceed that we may be well into whacked-out conspiracy theory territory here, especially as I’m writing this at 2:30 in the morning and am currently nicely ‘jacked’ on coffee with a few chapters of Hunter Thompson’s third ‘Gonzo Papers’ collection to look forward to before bedtime, but the idea that the ’secret’ being protected by refusing to allow intercept evidence in court may be that its not our own people collecting that evidence seems at least as plausible as any other explanation that’s been put forward by the Blair government and probably much more plausible that the rather banal excuses we’ve been getting of late.
Who know’s for sure, but if any of Uncle Sams boys do happen to be looking then don’t take it personally guys, its only a bit of late night speculation after all.
Oh, and before I forget, props to Tim at Bloggerheads (as usual) for some of the links which led to this latest bit of semi-literate rambling.