Britain’s political class has been closing its eyes and hoping the revelations from Edward Snowden go away rather than tackle important issues over mass surveillance that have provoked such heated debate in America, the editor in chief of the Guardian has said.
Speaking to the BBC hours before the US president, Barack Obama, was due to give details about reforms to the US spy headquarters, the National Security Agency (NSA), Rusbridger said: “I think one of the problems is that both of the main political parties feel compromised about this. Labour is not keen to get involved because a lot of this stuff was done on their watch.”
He added: “I think there is a degree of complacency here. There has been barely a whisper from Westminster. I think they are closing their eyes and hoping that it goes away. But it won’t go away because it’s impossible to reform the NSA without having a deep knock-on effect on what our own intelligence services do.”
Interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Rusbridger said the oversight mechanisms that were supposed to review the work of Britain’s intelligence agencies had proved to be “laughable”. He said the parliamentary intelligence and security committee, even with the extra money it had received recently, was not up to the job. “I just don’t think they have the technical expertise or the resources,” he said.
Rusbridger added: “What is unprecedented in the last 15 years is the advance of technology. It is completely different from anything that has existed in humankind before.”
Earlier in the programme, William Hague, the foreign secretary, reaffirmed his belief that Britain’s eavesdropping headquarters, GCHQ, had acted within the law when it looked at the content of intercepted messages.
He refused to comment on the Guardian’s latest story from the Snowden files – which shows GCHQ has access to “unwarranted” text messagescollected by the NSA in a programme codenamed Dishfire.
“I am not going to comment on allegations or leaks. I can’t possibly do that,” said Hague.
“But I can say [we have] a very strong system of checks and balances of warrants being required from me or the home secretary to intercept the content of the communications.
“That system is not breached. I have not seen anything to suggest that system has been breached. We have probably the strongest system in the world. Not only do I and the home secretary oversee these things, but we have commissioners who oversee our work and report to the prime minister. No country has a stronger system than that.”
But Rusbridger said Hague had sidestepped the main issue.
Dishfire collects so-called “metadata”, which can be analysed with fewer legal restraints. Yet expert after expert had admitted metadata was as valuable as content to intelligence analysts, said Rusbridger, because it allows analysts to build up a picture of your whereabouts and your relationships.
“There is not much distinction between metadata and content,” he said.
“[Hague] talked about being within the law on content. This isn’t content. This is metadata, which politicians make out as very harmless. This is not just billing data. The world has moved on. What people can tell through metadata is almost everything about you.
“Contrary to what William Hague said the documents say, the NSA likes working here because of the light legal regime here.”
Rusbridger also questioned the claims of Britain’s security chiefs that the Guardian’s revelations had undermined national security and – in the words of the head of MI6, Sir John Sawers – left al-Qaida rubbing its hands in glee.
Rusbridger said the claim was “theatrical … but there was no evidence attached”.