Martin’s Mass Surveillance Muddle

MP for GCHQ, Martin Horwood, has finally responded to my letter of 29 July

Dear Joe

First of all can I apologise for the delay in replying to you. Sheer weight of more urgent work I’m afraid.

I don’t see any real contradiction in the two sets of statements that I made about GCHQ this year and back in 2008, although I can see that the news reports differ in tone. But I can assure you that I have always valued and respected GCHQ’s work and have often said so in public. In 2008 I said that it was “right that the rest of us, from the Government down to the individual members of society, should set the limits on what GCHQ is allowed to do with the technology available to it. It’s clear that these measures could help combat terrorism, but I’m very concerned about their civil liberties implications.”

Well, I’m still concerned about the civil liberties implications – and I have very clearly welcomed recent inquiry announcements:

But it’s also become very clear in recent months that limits are being observed and that we have probably the strongest oversight of intelligence of any jurisdiction in the world, placed in statute by a series of laws culminating in the Justice and Security Act 2013. GCHQ is scrutinised by the independent Intelligence & Security Committee (ISC) who can demand answers to questions the intelligence services would not be able to answer in public. Any request to read the content of any individual’s communication has to be signed off personally by the Foreign Secretary or another Secretary of State. Any of these permissions can be reviewed by independent commissioners who must have held high judicial office. Any complaint about almost any aspect of their work can be heard by an independent Tribunal.

The ISC has recently specifically reviewed Tempora to see if any UK law was broken and concluded that none were. You describe Tempora as ‘mass surveillance’ but sheer mathematics should persuade you this can’t possibly be true. How could 5,000 GCHQ employees possibly monitor the contents of billions of messages, even if they did nothing else all day? They have always had the right – under judicial or political oversight – to intercept letters and telephone calls and they obviously need comparable powers to access messages sent via new technology. Otherwise it would be childishly simple for those who would do us harm to avoid detection. And I assume you too would want to detect those people before they commit murder again. This is not some imagined threat: thousands of people really died on 9/11, 7/7, in Madrid and Mumbai and Bali and elsewhere.

It is naturally frustrating and disconcerting not to know what answers GCHQ give to the ISC in private about their work but such a system simply has to operate behind closed doors. I’m afraid we do have to trust the ISC to ask the right questions as you would have to trust those who did this under whatever system you might devise. I agree their questioning in public the other week looked pretty gentle and I would hope that it’s tougher in private. Perhaps we should look at the ISC’s membership. But, looking at it more broadly, I can’t really think what other kind of system could safely set limits on the intelligence services and make sure those limits were adhered to without revealing sensitive secret information to the world.

As for Edward Snowden, he didn’t notify anyone in the NSA of his concerns or go through any of the whistleblowing channels available in the US. He didn’t expose outright government lies as Clive Ponting did back in the 1980s over the Belgrano. He simply revealed thousands of pages of secret information to the media, and through them to hostile governments, terrorists and anyone else who cared to wade through them for useful information. It is now pretty clear he did enormous damage to our national security in the process. And unlike Ponting, he didn’t have the courage to face the consequences in court, taking refuge instead in Putin’s Russia which is currently intimidating and locking up journalists, businesspeople, peaceful environmental protesters, feminist and LGBT activists, artists and rock groups and where the secret intelligence services act with far greater impunity than GCHQ. Some friend of liberty.

I’m sorry again for the delay in replying.

All the best



Aaaaaaand, my reply:

Hi Martin,

Many thanks for (finally) responding. Since I don’t currently have any “urgent” projects aside from working full-time, looking after two young children, and doing up a house for said children to live in, I thought I’d get back to you sharpish with some comments/further questions… 😉

1. You say that you “have very clearly welcomed recent inquiry announcements“.

Indeed you have. But transparently *not* because you are “concerned about the civil liberties implications”, but rather because you have already decided that GCHQ has nothing to hide and clearly believe that a stage-managed inquiry will provide a means for GCHQ to clear its name.

2. You say that “we have probably the strongest oversight of intelligence of any jurisdiction in the world“.

If this is so, how do you interpret the internal GCHQ view that the UK’s regulatory regime is a “selling point” to the NSA?

3. You say that the “ISC has recently specifically reviewed Tempora to see if any UK law was broken and concluded that none were“.

As far as I am aware, the ISC has “reviewed” aspects of Prism, not Tempora. Could you please provide the basis of your assertion that the ISC has “reviewed Tempora”?

4. You say: “You describe Tempora as ‘mass surveillance’ but sheer mathematics should persuade you this can’t possibly be true“.

Well, maths never was my strong suit, but common sense tells me you’re either misunderstanding or misrepresenting the nature of the problem. The issue isn’t that GCHQ staff are actively reading everyone’s emails, but that they *could* if they so wished, at the drop of a hat. In other words, it’s the capability itself that’s the problem, as your party seemed to understand back when it evinced some principles…

5. You say that “This is not some imagined threat: thousands of people really died on 9/11, 7/7, in Madrid and Mumbai and Bali and elsewhere.”

Where “else” did you have in mind, exactly? Iraq, perhaps (upwards of one million dead)? Afghanistan (tens of thousands dead)? Waziristan (where civilians continue to be assassinated by US drones, facilitated by GCHQ locational intel)? No, you’re right, the terrorist threat isn’t “imagined”, it’s very real and has been for decades… for those living in resource-rich parts of the world coveted by the US/UK. And to the extent that there *is* a threat to the UK, this is almost entirely a product of UK aggression, as those who have committed acts of violence tell us at every available opportunity. If the UK government were serious about reducing the “terror threat”, it would ameliorate its terroristic foreign policy, not build a “vast, systemic, institutionalized, industrial-scale Leviathan surveillance state“.

6. You say that “it is now pretty clear [Snowden] did enormous damage to our national security…”.

Actually, this is about as clear as mud. Are you willing to adduce any evidence to back up this charge?

7. You say that “[Snowden] didn’t have the courage to face the consequences in court, taking refuge instead in Putin’s Russia…“.

With respect, this is complete nonsense. Snowden had wished to travel out of Russia, but was prevented from doing so as his passport was revoked by the United States government, which – in an attempt to apprehend Snowden – then proceeded to pressure European states to force down the aircraft of the President of Bolivia! Some friend of liberty.

I look forward to hearing from you.


UPDATE – 25 January 2014 – Response from Martin Horwood:

Dear Joe

I had a fine Christmas, thanks, apart from a persistent lurgy that had me coughing and spluttering through most of it. I think we may have to draw a line under this conversation eventually but here we go for now, in answer to your specific points:

1. Oh yes I did. “GCHQ should welcome the inquiry and have nothing to fear about it. It is very important in a democracy to know our civil liberties and our privacy are being safeguarded.” Echo 18 October 2013.

2. Your link doesn’t show any evidence that it is a ‘selling point’ for GCHQ and that phrase appears to be from a campaigner not the intelligence agencies themselves. Payments for services provided don’t necessarily do anything more than cover costs.

3. You’re quite right that the specific review that has already concluded was into GCHQ’s use of Prism data not Tempora but the chair of the ISC has clearly indicated to parliament ( that the kind of surveillance involved in Tempora has been scrutinised by the ISC and, by the time of my original email, a specific enquiry by the ISC had been initiated into ‘the appropriate balance between privacy and security in an internet age’, which would undoubtedly cover this aspect of intelligence-gathering.

4. No they can’t. To read the content relating to any individual they need ministerial approval (see above debate again)

5. I think it is both misguided and rather irrelevant to suggest that Al’Qaeda terrorist threats are ‘almost entirely’ a result of US/UK violence. Misguided because, while I may not be any more of a fan of past American foreign policy or the use of UAVs than you are, to use them to excuse Al’Qaeda’s moral responsibility for these mass murders is moral blindness. Irrelevant because, whatever the cause or origin, the fact is that the threat does exist and therefore has to be countered. Or would you really rely entirely on a changed foreign policy to stop Al’Qaeda in its tracks? In which case, what kind of change in foreign policy would ever satisfy them? Presumably one which acquiesced in the violent overthrow of moderate Arab regimes – including democratic ones like Palestine, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq – in order to establish an extreme and intolerant Salafist caliphate on the model of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan which brutally oppressed women and religious minorities, stopped girls’ education, executed political opponents and petty criminals, detonated historic Buddhist monuments and provided training bases for mass murderers. I don’t think that kind of foreign policy is very likely from any western country in the near future so we’d better not rely on that as a way to defend ourselves against Al’Qaeda.

6. GCHQ have told me that intelligence from a wide range of sources has deteriorated since Snowden started leaking. Iain Lobban said as much in the open session of the ISC and explained logically why it should be the case: You could, I suppose, suggest he’s making it all up but I don’t think he is. He also volunteered to give more specific evidence to the ISC in private session.

7. Some friend of liberty! Seeking to apprehend people who have blatantly broken the law and damaged national security and bring them to trial seems pretty reasonable to me. Liberty isn’t unqualified regardeless of what croimes you commit. And Snowden would get a fairer trial in the US courts than Mikhail Khordokovsky did in Russia, or Platon Lebedev, or Sergei Magnitsky, or Alexander Litvinenko, or Anna Politkovskaya, or Pussy Riot, or the Arctic 30, or the ecologist Evgeny Vitishko or the countless human rights activists and journalists and political opponents of Putin who risk their liberty in far more deadly circumstances without running away to other countries. If you want to see who you should be supporting in Russia right now – young people who are showing extraordinary courage in the face of real oppression, take a look at the Liberal Democrats’ sister party’s website:

Happy New Year!


To which I have responded thus:

Thanks, Martin.

Yes, a line must be drawn eventually, but not just yet…

1. In fact, the quote you highlight validates my statement. The crucial words are “…and have nothing to fear about it”, which indicate quite clearly that you have already decided GCHQ has nothing to hide.

2. Look at the article again. The key sentence is: “But in the documents GCHQ describes Britain’s surveillance laws and regulatory regime as a “selling point” for Washington.” Couldn’t be clearer really.

3. Better just to concede the point rather than attempt to wriggle out of your error by referring to woolly statements by the ISC.

4. You’ve completely missed the point. It’s the *capability* itself that’s important, not the rules that purportedly (yet likely don’t) guard against abuse.

5. Again, you’ve largely missed the point, which is that “our” crimes dwarf “theirs”. Resolve this fundamental asymmetry and we’re nearly the whole way in defeating the hardcore “al-Qaeda” ideology such that exists.

6. GCHQ “have told you”? Enough already.

7. So you think that forcing down a Head of State’s aircraft is “pretty reasonable” , do you? Interesting. As for Snowden getting a fair trial in the US, just look at how they treated Chelsea Manning – years in solitary (a form of torture), systematic ritualised humiliations, followed by a long-term prison sentence… for leaking material like this.

Best wishes,



2 thoughts on “Martin’s Mass Surveillance Muddle

  1. Jo , you clearly have the answers to everything from road crossings to gchq. How about you stand for parliament or get involved at a local level then you will really see the big picture.
    Perhaps an electronic crossing would be nice but at a cost of £ 80,000 is a huge hole in budgets, which have been systematically cut, and have to spread ever further. Suggesting GCC will only act if someone is killed is crass in the extreme, emotional blackmail being the fallback of those who have nothing more coherent to add.
    Also sarcasm, the lowest form of wit: to suggest that Martin horwoods late reply due to other more urgent matters compares to your urgent issues of working, children, home is laughable. What you describe is what most people live with many in far worse circumstances, what Martin had to deal with is also the same and also splitting his life between London and Chelt, and dealing with long days, endless meetings and thousands of letters from the public. He also has young children. He was an excellent local mp for years, perhaps some praise and thanks for that might not go amiss. Your blogs are incredibly critical of others, and give the impression that you have all the answers and are always right. Stop criticising and find out what it’s really like out there for people such as local Councillors who for the most part work their socks off for a pittance.

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