As published in The Sunday Times:
We need an inquiry into the surveillance state
I am a bit of fan of Sir David Omand, the former director of GCHQ, as I have worked with him in the past, writes David Davis.
However, I think his claim that the leaks by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden are worse than those of the Cambridge spies is exaggerated.
The Cambridge cabal of establishment traitors betrayed the country at a time when we were fighting totalitarian regimes — first the Nazis, then the Soviets.
They were real, existential threats to democracy and, in the case of the Soviets, existential threats to our survival.
The Snowden leaks are nothing like that. It is true that we have lost 57 people to terrorism in the past 10 years and that is a terrible toll, but in Northern Ireland we lost 3,000 lives in 30 years. So I think the threat is being overdone.
The intelligence services are also fond of saying that they foil one or two plots a year. Well, we do spend £2bn in doing it, so that’s about £1bn a plot.
I don’t have any objection. But they have not yet demonstrated why they need this massive amount of information to do that — all the arguments indicate the opposite.
As we remember from the 7/7 bombings, the problem was not a lack of data, but that they didn’t handle it properly. They knew about the ringleader, Mohammad Sidique Khan, but they didn’t put all the pieces of the jigsaw together.
Of course you have to protect agents and operations and methods, but there needs to be more accountability. The Intelligence and Security Committee needs greater resources and a more challenging approach to force spy chiefs to come clean when mistakes are made or citizens’ rights are infringed.
There needs to be a royal commission to look into the surveillance state — a proper independent review chaired by a senior judge, such as the former lord chief justice, Lord Igor Judge.
The people who serve the commission would have to be extremely skilful and knowledgeable in everything from the software involved to the significance of security issues. Its brief would be to review the entire surveillance mechanisms, procedures and legal structures in the UK. It would examine what is appropriate and necessary to provide proper protection for national security without impugning the privacy of the ordinary British public. It might take a couple of years, but it would need to answer the question: why do we need this, when Germany, which suffered under the Stasi, does not?