How “national security” became the handmaiden of government secrecy

We can no longer rely on the public right to know being upheld

February 06, 2020
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“National security!” The phrase echoes around Whitehall. Once the appeal of last resort for ministers and officials desiring secrecy, it is invoked with increasing frequency as they face the prospect of wrongdoing being exposed, or simply embarrassment.

The cry goes up to suppress information and stifle debate. Egged on by their advisers, politicians hope that parliament and public opinion will defer to claims that disclosure would endanger British security. A claim that national security has been breached is deployed as the ultimate weapon in Whitehall’s arsenal, with results ranging from the age-old mantra “we do not comment on intelligence matters” through to the full force of the criminal law.

Refusal to comment, court injunctions, charges under the Official Secrets Act have all been used—in the name of protecting national security—to ban the media from covering allegations that British intelligence agencies colluded with the CIA in torture; to prevent reporting on the way communications are intercepted, and to punish a GCHQ employee for blowing the whistle on US plans to bug UN offices before the invasion of Iraq. In these and many other cases the government was eventually forced to back down or judges made clear that disclosure was justified to expose misconduct.

But in such an environment can we always rely on the public’s right to know being upheld?

Because they have found it a flexible friend, it is natural that governments have been reluctant to define “national security” too tightly. Most people would probably assume it means specifically the protection of the country from violent attacks. The 1989 Security Service Act goes much further. MI5’s task, it says, is to protect us “against threats from espionage, terrorism and sabotage, from the activities of agents of foreign powers and from actions intended to overthrow or undermine parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means” (emphasis added). I was once told that I was damaging national security—in this case, the future of British food supplies—by writing about the threats to health from the use on British farms of 2,4,5-T, the herbicide and active ingredient of Agent Orange, used by the US as a defoliant in Vietnam.

A succession of statutes, often introduced as an immediate response to terrorist attacks, made it easier for the police to arrest suspects with little or no evidence. A creeping definition of terrorism is widening the net.

The Justice and Security Act was introduced by the coalition government in 2013 to set up a system of secret courts to protect national security. It was triggered by allegations that MI5 and MI6 had been complicit in the abduction of British nationals and residents and their secret transfer to Guantanamo Bay. To prevent the evidence from being disclosed the government had paid the victims millions in out-of-court settlements.

Under the 2013 act, evidence in future would be heard in secret by judges and security-cleared “special advocates,” who could not provide full details to a claimant. The government admitted one of the advantages was that the act would reduce the “reputational and political costs” of claims made against British security and intelligence officials.

Following further procedures laid down by the 2013 act, the prime minister in October last year was handed a report of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee on Russian interference in British politics. His task was to judge whether publishing the report would threaten national security. Dominic Grieve, the former Conservative attorney general and chair of the ISC, said the report should be released before the forthcoming election and described the reasons the government gave for suppressing it as “bogus.”

Even the National Security Council had cleared the report. This was a clear case of “national security” being abused for political reasons. On 13th December, the day after the election, the prime minister said the report could be published after he approved the membership of a new ISC committee.

At the start of this year, counter-terror police identified non-violent protest groups including Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion as “extremists.” They were listed in training assessors and in guidance to teachers, Home Office officials and others responsible for administering the government’s Prevent programme set up to identify potential terrorists. Though the police have denied they equate XR and environmental groups with terrorism and say some of the guidance has been withdrawn, Home Secretary Priti Patel defended the police initiative, saying it was important to look at “a range of security risks.”

Non-violent protest and dissent is becoming synonymous with “extremism,” an ill-defined concept. Extremism can lead to violence, as the case of Sudesh Amman in Streatham made clear. That makes it all the more important that the resources of the intelligence agencies, the police, and prison officers concentrate on pursuing genuine threats rather than non-violent protestors publicly demonstrating their dissent.

We are at risk of returning to the bad old days when CND anti-nuclear protestors, civil rights campaigners and trade union leaders were considered threats to national security. There is a real danger at a time when there are genuine threats to public health and safety (including terrorist attacks) that the notion of “national security” becomes little more than a shibboleth, a phrase trotted out too often by officials and ministers to protect themselves from discomfort or just for a quieter life.

The more the security and intelligence agencies, with the help of ever-more-powerful surveillance technology, are encouraged to amass data on individuals, the greater the danger of their failing to see the wood for the trees.

The perpetrators of most of an estimated 40 terrorist attacks on the west since 2001 were already known to national security and intelligence services. They include the Manchester Arena, London Bridge, and Westminster attackers in 2017 (although MI5 foiled 13 plots in the years 2017-18 according to security sources).

Intelligence chiefs say that with sophisticated encrypted communications their task is becoming increasingly difficult. It is like finding a needle in a haystack, they warn. The problem is they are constructing more haystacks. Blurring terrorism with “extremism,” then dissent and protest, in the name of national security, will make their task even more difficult. 

Richard Norton-Taylor is the author of “The State of Secrecy” (IB Tauris/Bloomsbury)