Leader: Security services must maintain trust

GCHQ were censured recently for a lack of clarity in how they share information. Picture: AP
GCHQ were censured recently for a lack of clarity in how they share information. Picture: AP
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SINCE the 9/11 attacks in 2001 changed the world’s perception of its vulnerability to terrorism, most western governments have worked on the basis that some degree of trade-off is necessary between security and individual liberty.

The problem is that different people calibrate that trade-off in different ways.

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For libertarians, any significant surrender of liberty to the state apparatus is anathema. They see such surrender as a victory for the terrorists, who , after all, have as their aim the removal of our liberal freedoms. Why, then, should we do their job for them?

For others, ensuring security of the public in the face of ruthless and blood-soaked terrorists justifies some concessions in the form of surveillance and restrictions on an individual’s freedom of action, as well as their right to privacy.

Negotiating between these viewpoints – each of them perfectly legitimate and rational – is one of the great political and moral challenges of the age. And it is one that our political leaders and security services are struggling to deal with.

Yesterday it was revealed that the Investigatory Powers Tribunal had censured GCHQ for a lack of clarity in how it shared surveillance data. This was the first censure of the security services in the 15 years the tribunal has been in existence, and was clearly intended as a shot across the bows.

GCHQ had used its privileged access to US security service data to spy on British citizens, bypassing the need under British law for a warrant. In doing so, GCHQ also bypassed the normal methods by which its actions are held to democratic account.

Now, the attraction to GCHQ of access to American data gathering operations such as Prism and Upsteam is pretty obvious. But what should also have been clear to the intelligence apparatus was that, by ducking out of sight of the usual methods of oversight, they were jeopardising the contract of trust under which they operate on the public’s behalf.Secret operations of any kind by any branch of the government or security services can only be justified if they are regulated within a structure that has credible democratic checks and balances.

That does not mean that the public needs to know everything that is going on. In a world where we face the daily threat of violent Islamist terrorism, that would be impractical.

But we do need to know that people we trust, and who are directly accountably to parliament, are fully aware of what is being done in our name, and are satisfied that it is within the bounds of acceptability.

Amnesty International yesterday said governments were becoming “increasingly greedy and unscrupulous” in their use of our personal information.

Of the judgement they added: “This is about showing that the law exists to keep the government spooks in check.”

Lessons, we trust, have been learned.

A hero comes home

As the full scale of child sexual abuse in the latter part of the 20th century is brought to light – particularly though the seemingly constant stream of celebrity court cases – the terrible human toll this abuse has wrought becomes increasingly clear.

The ways in which survivors have dealt with their trauma are as individual as the survivors themselves. Some have channelled their experience into understandable anger; some into campaigning; yet more into a simple, quiet dignity that they believe is the best defiance of their abusers. Matthew McVarish chose a more singular path. His uncle was sentenced to six years for abuse in 2010. Mr McVarish’s way of dealing with this was to embark on a 10,000-mile walk across Europe to highlight the issue of abuse in as many places as he could.

He is due to finish his journey today on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, after 21 months on what he has called his Road to Change walk.

His story will be familiar with many Scotsman readers – Mr McVarish was a recipient of one of our Spirit of Scotland award last year. It recognised his campaigning efforts along the route to abolish the statute of limitation on reporting such crimes that exists in many eastern European nations. Mr McVarish met politicians and lawyers in many countries, arguing his case, sparking debate in some places where talking openly about child sex abuse is still regarded as taboo.

Here in the UK, other survivors see him as an inspiration – even if they themselves have taken very different paths in dealing with their experiences.

Welcome home, Mr McVarish. You have done yourself and your country proud.

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