Ever since Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the questionable conduct of national security services in the UK and USA in 2013, GCHQ and the British Government have been dealing with the backlash from ordinary citizens. People have been understandably outraged by the possibility that their private information may have been accessed by spy agencies in their controversial collection of bulk data. Now, however, the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond wants to “draw a line” under the debate.
With the upcoming publication of reports by David Anderson (the independent reviewer for legislation on terrorism) and the Intelligence and Security Committee, Hammond believes it’s time to close the book on the controversy surrounding GCHQ’s treatment of ordinary people’s data. Regarding the reports, Hammond said: “I look forward to reading their conclusions. But I am also clear that this debate cannot be allowed to run on forever.” The Foreign Secretary cited the risk of the UK’s security agencies being “distracted from their task” as a reason for a firm conclusion to the debate.
However, one can’t help but notice that Hammond is attempting to “draw a line” under the controversy before it has actually been resolved. The publication of a report does not, on its own, represent any form of resolution. The practices of the security service have not been formally adjusted or reformed, nor have any real safeguards been put in place to prevent the abuse of GCHQ’s powers. So is Hammond simply trying to “draw a line” so that the UK’s security service can get back to business as usual without facing any significant consequences for its actions?
Does Hammond have legitimate concerns over GCHQ being distracted and disrupted or are his attempts to end the debate little more than a ‘whitewash’? We don’t have the answer, but it’s a question that’s likely to dominate debate around the UK’s security services for some time to come. By attempting to end debate too soon, Hammond has practically guaranteed that it will continue to rage on for months, if not years.
The Foreign Secretary states that the debate “cannot be allowed to run on forever”, but it’s not his place to allow or disallow it. As long as UK citizens still have questions and opinions about GCHQ’s practices, and as long as nothing is done to resolve the issue, the debate will continue whether it’s “allowed” to or not.