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Issue #1676      March 11, 2015

The prying state

BRITAIN: A great deal has been said and written about burgeoning extremism in recent weeks – particularly in connection with the Middle East. The quality of the data provided to MI5 and MI6 to help them counter such extremism has been questioned.

The main responsibility for gathering such data lies with the National Domestic Extremism Team (NDET). The team was established, not by act of Parliament, but by the Association of Chief Police Officers of England and Wales to co-ordinate surveillance operations and work with Crown Prosecution Service specialists.

Thus, there is no direct statutory basis for what is in essence a secret police and judiciary. Indeed, there is no official or legal definition of just what domestic extremism is. But, if there were, legal experts say that it would focus on those who conspire to carry out crimes aimed at changing state policy or legislation, or preventing it from changing.

The problem is that the definition of what might be illicit is entirely subjective. Prosecution can only be justified by finding evidence and this gives the police licence to first carry out widespread surveillance of legitimate organisations and second, deliberately seek to lead such organisations closer to illegality in order to prosecute them.

The effect has been a staggering dilution of the nature of bourgeois liberal democracy over the last decade. Not only do we now know that there are police officers posing as student, environmental and animal rights activists, but the first undercover officer working as a trade union activist has been outed.

Now John Catt, a 90-year-old pensioner with no criminal record in his long life, has lost a four-year legal battle to compel police to destroy a secret file they have compiled on his political activities.

It is seemingly quite within the law to keep a detailed record of someone’s political activities – in John Catt’s case his attendance at peaceful protests at the rate of one or more a month.

Like Mr Catt, some 26,000 people have in recent years had their details recorded on the National Special Branch Intelligence System database, although there are claims that this has now been much reduced. This is on a par with MI5’s claim in 2000 to have given up spying on British communists. They would say that, wouldn’t they?

The British state unequivocally spent most of the 20th century opening the post, listening in to the telephone conversations, recording details of speeches, and bugging the offices of communists and their allies in the trade union and labour movement.

Often the files they kept, most of which have disappeared, were composed of tittle tattle. Even some MPs, up until the mid-1970s, were treated to a life of surveillance.

All this was kicked into a whole new level of activity when Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary for England and Wales complained, during the period of a new Labour government, that a major shortcoming in the effectiveness of Special Branch’s work was an inadequate IT system – including the lack of a national database for intelligence management.

Consideration of civil liberties issues at the time the database was founded was entirely focused on the consequences of the invasion of Iraq.

The “evidence” for continuing surveillance of Mr Catt is that he had been “regularly present at events where disorder had taken place,” which “at least raised the possibility of association.”

He had also expressed support for some who were prosecuted but later acquitted of criminal acts. Data was retained when there was no question of criminal acts having taken place at all.

Whatever the arguments at the Supreme Court, the plain fact is that listing details of political affiliation and activity is completely unacceptable. Arguments that the quality of democracy in Britain is higher than in other states will inevitably be seen as false unless something changes.

Morning Star

Next article – Nobel chair who oversaw Obama award demoted

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