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'We can handle politicos, OUR ISSUE IS JUDGES', shout GCHQ docs

Leaked slides show UK spooks worried judicial oversight will spoil their sneaky fun

Leaked internal documents from Blighty's mass-surveillance agency, GCHQ, shows that it frets not over parliamentary or political oversight ... but instead describes judicial oversight as "THE MAIN ISSUE FOR US".

The note, and yes, it was made in all caps, is included in slides posted from the Snowden store released by The Intercept on Friday.

GCHQ is answerable to all three of Blighty's arms of state:

  • Executive/Political oversight is provided by the government. In GCHQ's case, this is Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who receives copies of the agency's compliance documents to ensure they are following the relevant legislation. These are documents the spooks provide themselves. Hammond is also responsible for signing warrants under RIPA.
  • Parliamentary oversight is provided by Parliament's cross-party Intelligence and Security Committee. This is composed of STRAP-cleared MPs, who will question the agency's expenditure, administration, and policy. STRAP is a kind of security classification, described as "a set of nationally agreed principles and procedures to enhance the 'need-to-know' protection of sensitive intelligence". It's a codeword, not an acronym.
  • Judicial oversight is described as "THE MAIN ISSUE FOR US" in the slide, which notes two commissioners' offices, the Interception of Communications Commissioner Office (IOCCO), and the Intelligence Services Commissioner (ISC), both of whom review the Foreign Secretary's actions and warrants.

In the leaked documents, GCHQ spookily noted that as "Senior High Court judges they are INDEPENDENT, non govt and not openly swayed by personal contact" (emphasis is our own):

They visit GCHQ at least 6-monthly and are guaranteed access to our paperwork, info relating to operations, talking to staff if necessary.

Can also visit ministers to check that they understand the reasons why they've signed the warrants.

Parliament does not see classified annex to PM's report.

Also noted, alongside the independent commissioners, is the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT). The IPT was established by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) to guarantee a means of redress to members of the public who believe their human rights have been violated by the intelligence agencies.


Compliance is automated, to a degree, for the spooks at GCHQ. A report by David Anderson, QC, the independent reviewer of Britain's anti-terrorism laws, featured extensive recommendations regarding such legislation, including that surveillance warrants should be signed off by judges rather than ministers.

Anderson stated there was no reason to stop the mass-surveillance. However, Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International, tweeted his disdain for some compliance activities at GCHQ.

A case brought against GCHQ for its mass-surveillance activities by Privacy International was torpedoed by some sneaky legislation earlier this year.

However, the IPT has found that illegal snooping had taken place, but that PI was not allowed to file a complaint on citizens' behalf.

A website has been set up to allow those inclined to do just that. ®

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