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Who Will Guard the Guardians?

In response to:

The Snowden Leaks and the Public from the November 21, 2013 issue

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I am an admirer of Alan Rusbridger’s editorial and journalistic talents but his article on the Snowden leaks [NYR, November 21] reads more like the case for the defense than an objective analysis by a fiercely independent newspaper.

He did not mention his newspaper’s attempt to suggest that the United Kingdom’s GCHQ might have been attempting to avoid UK law by asking the NSA to intercept on its behalf. If true this would have been highly damaging to GCHQ’s integrity.

The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, which I chair, examined these allegations and found that GCHQ had legal warrants in every case. At no time has Mr. Rusbridger explicitly acknowledged that they got it wrong.

I was amused that Mr. Rusbridger suggested that I might not be the right person to help provide oversight of our intelligence agencies as I am not “a child of the digital age” and might not understand the relevant documents.

What makes Mr. Rusbridger think he is? I am sixty-seven. He is sixty. In his article he admits that he was embarrassed because he did not understand the significance of some of the stolen documents Snowden gave him even after they had been explained to him by his technology advisers.

Given his advanced years and limited understanding of technology in this digital age why does he continue to believe that he is the right person to judge whether or not the UK’s national security will be damaged if top secret documents are published in his newspaper?

I have spent three years chairing the Intelligence and Security Committee with regular access to such documents, as well as having served as the UK’s foreign secretary. Would it be presumptuous of me to suggest that I and my colleagues on the committee are, at least, better qualified than he is as regards such matters?

The Rt. Hon. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, M.P.
House of Commons
London

Alan Rusbridger replies:

The Guardian did question whether the US-run PRISM program of the NSA allowed GCHQ to circumvent formal legal processes. We were hardly alone in raising concerns about the legal basis for much that has been revealed about the behavior of the main two Western intelligence agencies since the start of Snowden’s revelations in early June. Multiple voices—and now legal suits—have expressed similar anxieties, many of them in rather more blunt terms than The Guardian. Sir Malcolm’s oversight committee cleared GCHQ of this particular allegation on July 17. We reported that. Many remain.

Sir Malcolm is wrong to accuse me of being sixty: I am a mere fifty-nine. But it is true that we are, neither of us, children of the digital age—which was my very point. Sir Malcolm is many admirable things—a lawyer, a distinguished parliamentarian, a quick-witted debater, and a Scot. But I suspect he does not understand very much about the complex technologies built in total secrecy by smart engineers at GCHQ. The people he is supposed to be regulating have devised systems capable of processing 181 billion pieces of metadata a month. Expert cryptologists are appalled at some of the compromises to Internet security that have been introduced by the NSA. No meaningful oversight is possible without sophisticated understanding of digital technologies.

I am not putting myself forward as a regulator in place of Sir Malcolm. That’s his job. Equally, it’s not, I believe, appropriate for the government of which he’s a member to tell a newspaper when it’s had “enough debate” and threaten it with prior restraint—a nice name for censorship. My piece, he says, reads like “the case for the defense.” Isn’t it rather shaming that his fellow Conservative MPs are demanding a prosecution?

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