Home Affairs Committee MPs Worry about Minimization Procedures — of Newspaper, not Spy Service

I just finished watching Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s testimony before the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, which the Guardian live-blogged here. My overall impression is that, whatever else has happened to America’s former colonial overlords, Brits still maintain the ability to be utter blowhards while maintaining a facade of politeness far better than, say, our blowhards on the House Intelligence Committee.

Those who really wanted to attack Rusbridger and the Guardian, though, appear to have no sense of irony.

They latched not primarily on the Guardian’s publication of news about the NSA-GCHQ dragnet, which several MPs agreed showed the spy services had too few limits. Rather, MPs like Keith Vaz and Mark Reckless suggested Rusbridger had broken the law by sending 50,000 files to the NYT without first redacting the names of GCHQ’s spies. From the Guardian liveblog:

Has he communicated information contrary to the Terrorism Act?

Rusbridger says the government has known for many months that the material Snowden leaked included names of security people at the NSA andGCHQ and he told the cabinet secretary in July that the Guardian was sharing with the NYT. Self-evidently they work in New York. Rusbridger holds up the book Spycatcher by Peter Wright, a former MI5 agent, and recalls the ridiculous sight of the UK trying to stop publication of something being published elsewhere in the world. That was the point of giving the files to the NYT – to avoid a similar situation.

You have I think admitted a criminal offence there, Reckless says. Should Rushbridger be prosecuted?

Admittedly, this was mostly an attempt to intimidate Rusbridger (and he said as much).

But it was also a query about whether the Guardian used adequate minimization procedures before sharing bulk data collected in the course of reporting.

To one question, Rusbridger admitted he hadn’t gone through all 50,000 documents before handing them to the NYT, but he knew the NYT would also protect the names of any spies.

He effectively was taking precisely the same stance on minimization that GCHQ and NSA adopt with their bulk collection. The services share unminimized bulk collected data back and forth with each other. They agree (though sometimes let each other ignore that agreement) to minimize the data of British or US subjects before using that data in finished intelligence reports, the equivalent of a newspaper’s publication.

Pass on the data in bulk, with the understanding none of it will be published with the legally protected identities unmasked (unless needed to understand the intelligence, the spy services allow). That is the practice used by both the Guardian with NYT and GCHQ with NSA.

Spy overseers have repeatedly pointed to minimization procedures as an adequate protection for the privacy of their citizens, to hide information unless it was necessary. Usually, they ignore the danger of having those identities tied to the data in secret archives somewhere.

But at least MPs Vaz and Reckless admit, without meaning to do so, that such minimization procedures might not adequately protect sensitive identities.

But as Rusbridger quipped (and has quipped, elsewhere), the only one who is known to have lost control of data here was the NSA, not the newspapers.

7 replies
  1. Cryptome says:

    It remains to be demonstrated if newspaper’s security is better than NSA’s. The shuffling of files among them as reported does not inspire confidence, nor does their admitted inexperience with comsec. Privileged protection of journalism serves to hide failures as effectively as do official secrets.

    Concern that security breaches by journalism (as well as leakers) have occurred and have been, or will be, kept secret is a shared operational practice among all those with special privileges who uniformly ask the public for trust, and when that trust is betrayed, plead “we’re doing the best we can without access to secrets, it’s secretkeepers who mislead.”

    By these long-lived practices journalism and espionage have shown themselves closer in purpose and performance — in sanctimony, braggardy, exculpation, finger-pointing and dramatization — than either or both own up to, especially in training recruits, awarding prizes, honoring the fallen, venerating old salts and smarmy joking and tale-telling at Aspen, Davos, White House Correspondents Dinner and intimate lunches and briefings hosted by spies and publishers.

    Perhaps Bezos and Omidyar will be different than Sulzbergers, Grahams, Bancrofts, Luces, Pulitzers, Slims and Murdochs. But not likely so long as publishers and journalism remains fat, lazy, pampered and provided special access through official coddling under cloak of opposition.

    News coverage of national security has become a racket under special protection. Newcomers like Greenwald and Poitras are undergoing vetting, solitication, praise, bribery and coddling. Will they succumb, let us hope not.

  2. Phil Perspective says:

    I finally got around to looking up Vaz on Wikipedia. He’s a nasty piece of work. He led a protest against Satanic Verses(Salman Rushdie’s book) when it came out, among other unsavory things. One wonders why he’s part of Labour.

  3. Del Fonik says:

    @Phil Perspective: Maybe so, but it’s really not evident in this particular hearing. Indeed, Vaz came across as the quintessential urbane insider chair, Chuck Schumeresque.

    Going back to the outset of emptywheel’s post, this hearing suggests the Home Affairs committee either A) isn’t the appropriate committee for useful parliamentary oversight into this area, or B) to the extent it might be, Vaz, supported by several other members of the committee, understood and agreed that it’s been determined it will not be.

    Evidence: emptywheel specifically raises MPs Vaz and Feckless. Well, it wasn’t as if Rusbridger had any difficulty in converting their questions/’attacks’ to his own purposes. And Vaz in particular thereafter retreated into unctuousness towards Rusbridger. Only two members made any serious attempt to resist either Vaz’s leadership in coddling Rusbridger or, per my theory, the majority’s determination to leave the serious spadework to others and otherwise use this hearing simply as a setup for pressing the chief of the Brit security service: the most junior member, undaunted by his lack of understanding and insight, just flailed; and the laser-focused, hyper-aggressive MP Ellis tried to come off heavy, yet Rusbridger blew him off most easily of all.

  4. Nigel says:

    @Del Fonik:
    this hearing suggests the Home Affairs committee either A) isn’t the appropriate committee for useful parliamentary oversight into this area, or B) to the extent it might be, Vaz, supported by several other members of the committee, understood and agreed that it’s been determined it will not be.

    A – if by ‘this area’ you mean government surveillance you would be right, but as the Intelligence committee has failed lamentably in this role, then why complain ? It will be most interesting to see what Vaz makes of Andrew Parker.
    If you mean press oversight, then that ought not to be the business of any parliamentary committee.

    B – the summoning of Andrew Parker rather contradicts that.

  5. Stephen says:

    Having just watched the full hour and a half of Alan Rusbridger’s testimony (which, BTW, for those interested can be found in various places on youtube; I used this one:


    ) the criticism of Keith Vaz by various people on this page (eg Phil Perspective: “He’s a nasty piece of work.”) is–just MHO–overstated. Judging from the video, at any rate. Yes, he asked some tough questions of Rusbridger, including a quite appalling one (16:48 in the above-mentioned video: “Do you love your country?”). On the other hand, in his role as chairman of the meeting he displayed fairness and evenhandedness. In particular, at one point (32:18) he acted quite sternly and decisively with one of his fellow committee members (Michael Ellis) who displayed the most open hostility towards Rusbridger of all the committee and who during his initial six minutes of questioning at times tended to not so much question Rusbridger as lecture him.

    Others of the committee were more neutral or even friendly towards Rusbridger;and one in fact even fed him what seemed like a series of softball questions!

    The most surprising thing during the video, though, was the way most of them kept coming back to the issue of the Guardian’s handling of those 50,000+ files and thereby the possibility of British GCHQ officers having their names outed into the public domain. They were like a dog with a bone on that one, presumably because it was the one real avenue anyone could point to which could be used to launch a prosecution of the Guardian and Rusbridger himself. (Ellis @29:56: “it isn’t only about what you’ve published. It’s about what you’ve communicated. That is what amounts, or can amount, to a criminal offence.”).

    In that regard it is clear that few if any of them understood about encryption; and when at one point they ellicited an admission from Rusbridger that the Guardian had FedExed certain files to the NY TImes one gets the impression they believed that those files were being sent as plain text! Later in the video (beginning @1:11:48) the Miranda incident is cited as an example of Guardian laxity re classified docs and Rusbridger has an opportunity to point out the following: “if you read Mr Robin’s witness statement, which was made 11days after the material was seized, it is apparent that the encryption on the files themselves have not been broken by GCHQ’s finest.”

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