Why You Need To Know Britain’s David Davis
David Davis, a member of parliament in the United Kingdom, has been visiting Washington to gather and share information about an issue dear to his heart: government assaults on personal liberty and privacy. In the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations, this issue is no longer seen through a Left/ Right political lens, so no one should be surprised to find a member of the UK’s Conservative Party meeting with Americans across the range of political persuasions—from quasi-Tea Party types to liberal Democrats.
Like Davis, WhoWhatWhy sees the world as increasingly inter-connected. We don’t buy the notion that journalism is inherently local or national anymore. That’s why we increasingly make the trek across the Atlantic, and why we are researching developments outside the U.S., fostering alliances, recruiting foreign correspondents and more.
We’ve been especially interested in developments in London, including the hacking of cell phones by journalists, media collusion with law enforcement, the ubiquity of surveillance cameras in the city, the Guardian’s role in breaking the NSA/Snowden scandal—taking the lead on a principally American story—and the British authorities’ raid on the Guardian, which resulted in the paper being compelled literally to smash computers that held information related to Snowden’s revelations.
We in the U.S. are so distracted with the inconsequential scandal and manufactured news event of the moment that we tend to miss significant events elsewhere that can throw light on our own situation.
In early April, on my most recent trip across The Pond, I had the opportunity to sit down with Davis for coffee in his office at Portcullis House, adjoining the Houses of Parliament.
Davis is an intriguing figure. He was raised by a single mother in a tough housing project and is very much self-made. At university, while already a die-hard Conservative and head of the conservative students association, he insisted that all of his members join Amnesty International. Highly skeptical of government, he nonetheless is a strong backer of funding to provide legal representation to those who cannot afford their own.
Davis was a shadow Home Secretary at one time and for a while considered in the running to become Prime Minister. But at least in part because of his views and his tendency to say things that displease the establishment, that didn’t happen. Today, he is seen by more than a few, including those who do not share his overall political orientation, as a man who cares deeply and speaks his mind, no matter what. In recent years, he was a leader of Tory opposition to war with Syria.
On the issue of government surveillance and privacy, no elected Briton is more outspoken. I first heard him speak at a conference last year, and have since had lengthy chats with him. The Q&A below, the first of a two-part excerpt, is based on the more recent such chat, in early April. Some comments have been truncated and are revised for clarity. “Britishisms” have been rendered in style more familiar to Americans.
A Chat with David Davis, Part One
While WhoWhatWhy is expanding our view eastward, some UK politicians, activists and experts are looking increasingly in our direction. They find the U.S. in some ways a more vital place in the battle over privacy, secrecy, and accountability. These include the U.S.’s greater constitutional protections and comparatively superior freedom of information situation and legislative oversight capabilities.
Davis last popped over to Washington in January. One thing he gleaned is an uprooting of the conventional order of things.
David Davis: I think your Republican Party is changing. I went to see a Republican congressman called Amash [Justin Amash of Michigan]. He was the one who put in the amendment to the Appropriations bill to cut down the mass surveillance by the NSA, which got within seven votes of winning even though nobody campaigned for it. He said “You know, the old, the old tunes of regressive foreign policy and authoritarian domestic policy no longer gets you through the primaries in the Republican Party.” And this was in the week in which Dick Cheney’s daughter pulled out of her primary. So I think the world is changing in those terms
[Amash, who is close with Ron Paul, is loathed by the Republican establishment, some of whom are actively backing primary challengers]
Russ Baker: It’s interesting that you were over there. Do you visit the U.S. much?
D: Only with a particular purpose. So this time, what was happening here was, the Guardian had run all the NSA stuff…. It hadn’t taken off in terms of wider coverage by the rest of the English press. The conventional wisdom in Britain was that Britain didn’t care about privacy and intrusions of state.
Well, I didn’t believe that from my own personal experience with people. And I didn’t believe the opinion polls. We’d come out highest in Europe in concerns for our own privacy. And yet somehow we were the only country in Europe that wasn’t outraged by the behavior of GCHQ [the UK’s version of NSA] and NSA. And I took the view that there were a number of boring technical campaigning reasons. (Davis here uses “campaigning” in the British sense, to mean promotion of one’s work or views) Boring technical reason Number One was The Guardian newspaper was at odds with every other newspaper in Britain because of the Leveson Inquiry and the phone bugging….So no other newspaper could follow that kind of line.
So that’s Point One. Point Two is that The Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, is an incredibly clever, esoteric man, a very good editor, but he’s a bloody awful politician. He doesn’t know how to campaign in the normal sense of the word.
R: By the way, why did they not do more about their computers being smashed?
D: I think they were embarrassed, to be honest, that they didn’t make a fuss about it. But there were two reasons they allowed it. One was of course they had the information in the States. The First Amendment would protect them there while it doesn’t here. The second reason is that they would be tied up in court cases for the whole year if they did not make some sort of concession. If I had been them I would have made the video [of the computer smashup] go viral. (The Guardian recently released the video.)
I saw Alan and I said: “What you need to do, Alan, is to have a story appear in different papers over three days. It’s a rule of thumb if a story appears in different papers over three days, it bites in the public consciousness. People start talking about it, by the water cooler, or the coffee machine, or in the bar, or in the kitchen, or over dinner. But if it appears just one day, it doesn’t get talked about.
So I said to Alan, “What’s your biggest story yet to come?” And he said it was the texting story. That the agencies were picking up two hundred million texts a day. And I said: “Well, can you hold that back, and I will provide you three or four days of news coverage before you get to that. And then you run it.”
So I went to the States, spent a week collecting data on the most important single issue—privacy. I went to see Leahy [Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont], the judiciary chairman. I went to see Feinstein [Dianne Feinstein of California] and a number of others… the two chairmen of the senior Senate committees… and a number of companies… I came back with a whole lot of stories.
“Just a Phone Bill”
So what I did was, in The Daily Mail on Sunday—it’s one of the big tabloid newspapers—I had a full-page story about my metadata. Because up to this point the Home Secretary was saying “Metadata is just a phone bill. What does it matter if they’ve seen the phone bill?” So I had a page showing my metadata was a map of where I’d been on a given day. I picked it up at a meeting with lots of journalists at a convention, and you can pick it up from my phone.
R: From your phone?
D: From my phone. I asked Vodafone, the mobile phone people, to give me my metadata for a year. And they did and then we mapped it out to show what you could learn from it. So you could see who I called, you could see what websites I had accessed, you could see who I texted, and you could see where I was. If you had the whole database you could see who I’d been speaking to.
So it gave you the whole story of David Davis for a day. And this sort of shocked people, including in the House. That was on Sunday. On Monday, I did a piece in The Times all about what was happening in the States, and the President had initiated a panel who reported robustly that they should shut down some of these schemes. I appeared on radio. The next day or day after I had a piece in the second-biggest financial journal about the impact on business and the technology industries here, doing harm to them. And the next day [the Guardian’s] Rusbridger published his piece and he was on the Today program as well. So we had four, five days. Do you know what Any Questions is?
R: I’ve heard of it.
D: It’s one of our highest prestige radio programs. And on Any Questions on Friday night of that week, Jonathan Dimbleby, the chairman, asked the audience “Who thinks it is important?” —and 100 percent put their hands up. Six months previously, nobody would have put their hands up. So we suddenly transitioned. So that was the reason to get to the States. It was to give me the ammunition to come back here and make the story fly.
R: An awful lot about it is really about tactics.
D: Uh-huh. Because you’re up against the government. And the government is bigger than us. My entire staff will fit easily into this office [motions to a modestly sized space], with lots of room to spare. That’s all we have. That and our ingenuity and our speed. Whereas the government has the whole machine. You’ve got two agencies down here and another one in Cheltenham. No editor ever challenges what they say because they say, “Well, we can’t tell you that, it’s secret.” They have got, in a way, a sort of unfair advantage in this debate. So we respond with the facts.
To give you an example, one of the things that was noticeable in the States was that the claims of the agencies were contradicted by the investigation of the Judiciary Committee. They looked at the claim of 58 plots having been stopped by the mass surveillance exercise. They found it to be none. The only plot of any sort they found was $8,500 being transferred from San Diego to Somalia…. “That’s it?” So we could use that back here. We could turn around and say “Look. People are claiming impossible stuff. They claim 58, it was zero.” So, that’s very, very important. In an issue like this, where there are very few facts….
This is the country that invented James Bond. We like our spies; we want to believe our spies. What they say is not necessarily true, but it tends to be taken that way, so you have to come back with a fact that can knock it all down. That’s one example.
R: How much are you depending on the United States media?
D: Quite a lot. The U.S. is more open than Britain is by a long margin. Quite a lot.
Davis cites the case of Binyam Mohamed, who was arrested in Pakistan, then rendered to third countries, including Morocco, where he was tortured before he ended up in Guantanamo Bay.
He was not a particularly nice man but he obviously had been tortured….There was a big, big battle in our courts over whether they could release certain information implying that the government had some complicity in torture. And what happened was that one of your [U.S.] district courts released all the information. And so our court became almost irrelevant.
R: On one of the American Civil Liberties Union’s state websites, I saw them stating that something along the lines that more often than not, when government agencies refuse to release things for ‘national security’ reasons it’s to avoid embarrassment.’
D: Let me tell you a story that will highlight the problem. Many moons ago, I’d say about 1998-99, I was the chairman of our Public Accounts Committee, which is a sort of mixture of a finance committee and oversight committee.
Here, Davis references MI-5, the UK’s domestic intelligence agency, and MI-6, its foreign intelligence outfit, and the UK’s NAO, similar to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
What was interesting was the expenditure was being overrun on buildings—the MI-5 building over here and the MI-6 building—I think to the tune of 150 million pounds. And the NAO did a report on this. And, very, very unusually for the spooks, it was published. And it came to me in its pre-redacted form and then with the redactions. Now, again unusual.
The structure of this report was: Chapter One—Introduction, Chapter 2—MI-5, Chapter 3—MI-6, Chapter 4— Conclusion. The chapters 2 and 3 were virtually identical chapters about two different buildings. And each department, each agency had redacted its own chapter. And the redactions were different. So I said to the editor, ‘Go back to MI-5 and say MI-6 is happy with all these things being released. And then go back to MI-6 and say MI-5 is happy with all these things being released. We ended up with about three words being redacted in the whole thing. They were redacting to avoid embarrassment. What you might call political redaction.
Coming up in Part Two, Davis talks about whistleblowers, what the UK can learn from the U.S. about checks and balances, and how he helped stop the U.K. from going to war in Syria.
More Fighting Words From Britain’s David Davis: Interview, Part 2
UK Member of Parliament David Davis
As WhoWhatWhy increasingly looks beyond America’s borders to gain a deeper understanding of the issues that connect us all, we search for people who demonstrate boldness and elevate the discourse. David Davis, a UK member of parliament and the Conservative Party—Britain’s closest analogue to the Republicans—is one of them.
Davis has earned a reputation for speaking his mind even if it breaks with the official party line, particularly on issues relating to freedom, justice and government power. He’s been an original since his college days, when he was simultaneously a stout Conservative and a member of Amnesty International, a liberal group if ever there was one.
In Part One of this interview, Davis talked to WhoWhatWhy’s Russ Baker about how he came to the U.S. to gather ammunition to fight British government encroachments of personal liberty and privacy—and the tactics he used to drive the issue into the limelight.
In this second half of an April conversation with Russ in his London office, Davis focuses on the importance—and vulnerability—of whistleblowers. He weighs in on British government cuts to legal aid for ordinary defendants who otherwise don’t have the wealth or power to fight the state. And he discusses how his successful efforts to help stop the UK entering the war in Syria put him at odds with Prime Minister David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party to which Davis belongs.
As before, some comments have been truncated or edited for clarity, and the Britishisms rendered more understandable to American readers. If Britain and the U.S. are “two nations divided by a common language,” as the witticism goes, Davis speaks here fluently on issues that bridge the Atlantic.
A Conversation with David Davis, Part Two
Russ Baker: What’s UK policy on whistle-blowers? If someone working in one of those agencies came to the conclusion that all those redactions were self-serving, could they go public with that?
David Davis: They’d end up in prison.
R: Can you tell me just very briefly what the laws are in relation to whistle-blowers, in relation to anybody seeking to clarify what actually goes on in these agencies?
D: They would be in breach. There is no whistle-blower protection. They would get sacked and they would be prosecuted.
That doesn’t mean they’d go to prison. There’s a very, very famous case in Britain, called the Clive Ponting case. It dates back to the Falklands war. A Ministry of Defense civil servant provided to a parliamentarian details about the sinking of the General Belgrano—an Argentinian battle-cruiser. And there was a lot of argument about whether the ship was steaming away from or towards the Falkland Islands. Hundreds were killed. And he provided information indicating it was steaming away—whether it eventually matters, whether it was zigzagging, who knows? But the point was, he was prosecuted.
A British jury, even though they were effectively directed to convict him, acquitted him. And they acquitted him not based on the technicalities of the law, but because they thought the government was mounting a political trial—a Tory (Conservative) government at the time. The public was split over it. In the end the jury made the final decision. And I think the same would apply…. if we had an Edward Snowden, I would bet he would not be convicted. He would get prosecuted, without a doubt, but there’s a very, very decent chance the jury would refuse to convict on public interest grounds.
R: So your judiciary then is enormously important.
D: Yes. Well, the jury trial system is important.
R: The jury trial system, OK.
D: Because the Ponting case is a very good demonstration. If you go back long enough, you’ll find lots of examples. Post-WWII, we still had rationing in 1950—which is so ridiculous five years after the war. Eventually rationing was abolished by an incoming Conservative government largely because juries were refusing to convict people who were breaking rationing laws. The ability of the common man, the jury, to say: “the law is ridiculous” is an incredibly important function….
R: You call that ‘jury nullification’?
D: We don’t have a name for it.
R: That’s what we call it. It’s jury nullification, a kind of civil disobedience where they’re saying “We’re not doing it.”
D: Yes, it’s very important. It is the most important part of the jury trial system, the ability to do that. Far more important than convicting or not convicting people for plain crimes, I think is when the state does things which are just wrong.
No Separation of Powers
British politicians are frequently left in awe by Congressional committees, which they envy because they wield genuine power to compel results—notwithstanding their frequent failure to do so. In the UK parliamentary system, the equivalent select committees’ main function is scrutiny. Beyond an ability to generate headlines, they are largely toothless.
R: So what about Parliament? What is its role, if any, in oversight?
D: Two things. First of all there is the Intelligence and Security Committee, which I was actually party to setting up. I was the minister when I took that role to the House back in 1993. The idea of the Committee was that it would evolve into a proper Select Committee and become elected by the House, the Chairman elected by the House, and so on.
It is always described as a committee of Parliament— but it is not a Parliamentary committee. The Prime Minister appoints the members. So it doesn’t really have the independence. And over time it had a number of occasions when it has failed to blow the whistle.
Do you know what I mean by the Dodgy Dossier? It’s the dossier claiming weapons of mass destruction—when the security agencies signed up for this in public, said it to be true. They didn’t catch that. They didn’t spot the weaknesses and failures of the agencies to stop the 7/7 bombings here, the Tube bombings. They didn’t spot any of the Snowden stuff. None of these things were foreseen by this committee. It’s quite a weak committee in those terms.
Your oversight committees, especially the Senate [Intelligence] committee, although it tends to be very prone to capture by the agencies, will actually question them properly. And there’s a fair amount of evidence shown that they did that. Of course Feinstein [Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California] did that a couple of weeks ago.
R: Quite a change for her.
D: Yes, absolutely, a change for her. And when I saw her she was very, very pro the Agency. So that’s a big shift—it may just be breaking out of that shell. But we’ll see. In terms of the House itself, it would not want to be seen to be against the Agency when it is fighting terrorism.
Here in the UK, we also have another problem. And that problem is that we don’t have separation of powers. So, if a young MP wants to move up, he doesn’t do it by attacking the government, by attacking the executive. A few people do it. Probably a dozen….
Sen. Diane Feinstein of California accuses the CIA of spying on the Senate.
R: How might your citizens or system have reacted differently, for example, to FBI excesses?
D: We didn’t have the Hoover experience. So it isn’t a surprise to me that there wasn’t more of a row about the White House collecting FBI files on people. I thought if we knew that here, we would cause a fuss. It wouldn’t go away. The government would fold.
The good thing about the House of Commons is that short of impeachment, we can actually change our government. Though I don’t always approve of it. For example, Margaret Thatcher, when she fell afoul of our party, lost the prime ministership. Now that’s the other side of the argument.
R: What other things do you have that we don’t, that are good?
D: They’re organically different. It’s like a cat and dog. Which is better?
R: Dog. (both laugh) I saw that you deliberately stood for election to force an issue.
D: There are bits and pieces. Our system is more open than yours. There’s good for that, and there’s bad for that. The good is that it challenges the status quo, the conventional wisdom, and there’s a certain cachet by doing that.
There are two red lines down the center of the House of Commons. Two sword-lengths apart, and the phrase ‘toe the line’, it comes from ‘the speaker shall not toe the line’, meaning you mustn’t step beyond the red line towards your opponents, as it were. And the reason for that is the sheer ferocity in the House of Commons from time to time.
D: The people who say that are the skilled parliamentarians. If you’re good at it, you’re safer there, because you command it. If the place respects you and you know your subjects and you’re there on your subject, it will listen. You can silence the House. It’s possible to make the House hang on your every word, if you know how to do it. Three-quarters of the House don’t know how. With those who have been around a bit and the House has a respectable opinion of, they’ll listen.
Davis has been a thorn in David Cameron’s side ever since he lost the 2005 Conservative party leadership to his rival. He became one of a number of key figures arguing against the Syria motion, which rocked Cameron’s leadership and began a debate about Britain’s future in the world—which remains unresolved.
R: What is your position on Syria?
D: We stopped UK military action there. [The opposition Labour Party, together with dozens of Tories including Davis, blocked a resolution in favor of military intervention. As the conservative Telegraph newspaper put it, “It is the first time that a British Government has been blocked from executing a military deployment and highlights the deep mistrust of official intelligence in the wake of the Iraq war.”]
It is mostly theater but it has a voice. If somebody is not doing their job properly, it will show. And if you are a minister, you worry about it. If you had a problem, questions, it would worry you. When you are in trouble, the safest place to be, if you’re in trouble, is by the Despatch Box in the House of Commons.
R: What is a despatch box?
D: That’s where you stand. If you look in the Commons you see where they stand on. Where they put their papers. In a box. It’s a rather ornate, gilded box.
R: Why is it the best place to be?
I’m told that Cameron blames me for losing the vote. I’m told that Cameron holds me responsible for it being defeated. If so, I’m happy to take the compliment. Because of what would have happened if we had attacked Syria….It might have pulled us progressively into what might have been a Third World War….
When I met your senators and congressmen in the States in January and they were told that I opposed the war in Syria, not one of them disagreed. Not one of them. Interesting!
Cutting Justice for the Poor
R: I’ve been reading up on you more since the last trip. I was very interested in your background, your family story. First of all, tell me how did you first become interested in this subject?
D: Well, it is very hard to know. During my university days, there was a crisis in which the administration of the university employed private detectives to spy on its own staff; it was one of the earliest civil liberty debates in the United Kingdom. But it probably even precedes that—I was a member of Amnesty International in my teens—that might even seem as a left-wing thing, and indeed when I became the national chairman of the Conservative Students, I made them all join Amnesty International or drop.
R: I assume there was tremendous resistance to that.
D: It didn’t last long.
R: At that point, were you Conservative?
D: Yeah, absolutely. So I’ve always had an instinctive belief in the importance of justice.
I cannot think of it as “civil liberties.” I think it is really just the exercise of justice. Somebody once said to me: “The law is the structure of liberty.” It is a terrific way of imaging the interplay of freedom with justice. And so instinctively I’ve always had that, I suppose as long as I can remember.
And remember, when I was a very young man, when we were in the Cold War years, we were facing an enemy in the Soviet Union who characterized everything that we opposed, most importantly no real constitutional rights, no liberties, no freedoms, a fully unegalitarian state which did not afford everybody equal treatment under the law. And in a way, the story of my views on civil liberties, are stories of opposition to things, opposition to oppression, opposition to injustice, opposition to…. it’s more about opposing things which strike me instinctively as wrong than it is about something which is sort of popped fully formed from my head. Just the opposite.
R: I saw that you issued some sort of statement about Legal Aid and not cutting Legal Aid. That right away struck me as something that—I don’t know that you would see many Republican members of Congress speaking out for the rights of criminal defendants…
D: Yes, you’re right about that. I guess I’m the primary opponent of the government on these matters, in the House, even more than the Labour members. And the reason is that in this country, fighting a criminal (case) would bankrupt most people. Not a millionaire, but it would bankrupt most people.
And our justice system is now based on the premise, on the degree of the equality of arms between state and defense, between prosecution and defense – and what is being proposed is two sets of things which they cut down in Legal Aid which worry me. Number one was just a normal criminal defense. That’s where one can defend himself against going to prison. If your liberty is at risk, I don’t think you should have to spend your fortune to protect yourself. That’s point one.
But the other piece is: What the government is trying to do is to cut down on Legal Aid for judicial review [the appeals process].
Now in this country judicial review is one of the biggest curbs on government excess, government misbehavior. About 95% of judicial review cases never get to the Court. It is the government’s fault.
And I think as a Conservative it is very important that this place is a check on government.
Still, we don’t have your separation of powers, so it’s not as good as yours. Yet we have to do what we can.