British agents spy on lawyers and their clients who are suing the UK government – and then pass their confidential conversations onto the government's legal team, it's claimed.
Evidence of dirty tricks surfaced amid a court case brought against the British government by two Libyan families, who were kidnapped and sent back to Libya to be tortured by henchmen of the late and little lamented Colonel Gadhafi.
The legal charity Reprieve and lawyers at Leigh Day took up the families' case, but soon became suspicious that their conversations were being monitored. They asked for an investigation by the UK's Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), a legal review body set up under the reviled Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), and the IPT has forced the government to show its guidelines [PDF] on such matters.
The documents show that MI5 – which handles the UK's domestic security – show that between April 2011 and January 2014 the agency has no rules barring spying on lawyer-client communications, and would pass these snooped-on chats to the government's legal eagles for consideration.
MI6, which handles foreign intelligence, has virtually no safeguards to protect lawyer-client confidentiality. Some rules were added in September 2011, shortly before the Libyan trial began, but even these have an exemption if "extremists" are involved.
The UK's eavesdropping nerve-center GCHQ came out looking somewhat better. The agency has had a prohibition against feeding lawyer-client communications to the government since 1999, but for some reason this was relaxed in 2010 to allow some information to be shared with the state's lawyers.
How much have spies rigged ongoing torture court cases?
"It's now clear the intelligence agencies have been eavesdropping on lawyer-client conversations for years. Today's question is not whether, but how much, they have rigged the game in their favour in the ongoing court case over torture," said Cori Crider, director of Reprieve and the US counsel for the Libyan families.
"The documents clearly show that MI5's and GCHQ's policies on snooping on lawyers have major loopholes. And MI6's 'policies' are so hopeless they appear to have been jotted down on the back of a beer mat. This raises troubling implications for the whole British justice system. In how many cases has the Government eavesdropped to give itself an unfair advantage in court?"
The case of the two Libyan families, the Belhadj's and al Saadi's, could be one of the more shameful episodes in Britain's contribution to The War Against Terror (TWAT): the two clans are suing the UK government after MI6 agents allegedly tipped off the CIA to their whereabouts.
Abdel Hakim Belhadj was part of a rebel group fighting against Gadhafi in the 1990s and later fled to Asia, but in 2004 he and his pregnant wife were arrested by the CIA in Thailand and sent to Libyan prisons.
Religious leader Sami al Saadi was also an opponent of Gadhafi and lived in exile. He was also picked up by the CIA in 2004 and sent back to Libya, along with his wife and four young children, all of whom spent the next few years in prison.
After the Libyan revolution documents surfaced purporting to show the involvement of the British and American security services in delivering the two families to the tender mercies of Colonel Gadhafi. Both families sued the British and American governments, and it now appears that the security services could have been trying to get an advantage in litigation by spying on their communications.
"After many months' resistance, the security services have now been forced to disclose the policies which they claim are in place to protect the confidential communications between lawyers and their clients. We can see why they were so reluctant to disclose them," said Richard Stein, Partner at Leigh Day.
"They highlight how the security services instruct their staff to flout these important principles in a cavalier way. We hope the Tribunal will tell the government in no uncertain terms that this conduct is completely unacceptable."
The UK government declined to comment on ongoing legal action. ®