Stroebele in parliament: surveillance and drones

Hans-Christian Stroebele, German MP and longest serving member of the Parliamentary Oversight Committee which monitors the German Intelligence Services, visited Parliament yesterday to kick start ‘cross party, EU dialogue about the spying scandal’. His particular concern was reported surveillance from the British Embassy in Berlin and UK complicity in US telephone interception and mass data transfer via fibre optic cables and a communications hub in the UK. That hub is RAF Croughton, described as a ‘relay centre for CIA clandestine and agent communications’ by the Independent, and the same UK base which reportedly supports the US drone programme in Yemen via Djibouti. RAF Croughton has been the subject of a series of PQs by members of our APPG and a letter to William Hague by Chair Tom Watson calling for investigation and a statement of policy on use of the base.

Stroebele’s view was that UK complicity in either US tapping of Angela Merkel’s phone or the US armed drone programme would be unlawful – and a crime – in German law. As a democracy and member of the EU, the UK government must respond to the substantive allegations. On drones, he said: ‘it is a criminal case to kill someone – targeted killing – and aiding and abetting would be a criminal offence in Germany’. On surveillance and the transfer of data, he said: ‘we are of the opinion that it is an infringement of EU laws that the UK is allowing fibre optic cables in the South of England to be used in order to transfer this information from Germany to North America.’ In the absence of acknowledgement, investigation or the enforcement of restrictions so far, Stroebele has submitted a motion to the German government for initiation of an infringement procedure of EU laws against the UK.

The drones debate is linked to the wider debate on mass surveillance in 3 key respects. First, identical UK bases, communications facilities and practices are used to support both US data transfer and drone programme as demonstrated by the Merkel/RAF Croughton episode.

Secondly, it offers a striking example of potential abuse of surveillance data gathered by our and guest intelligence services in that data may end up being used to support an activity which would be prohibited under UK law. Review of documents disclosed by Edward Snowden indicates a high level of support provided by the NSA Counter-Terrorism Mission Aligned Cell to the CIA in targeting suspects, and GCHQ shares data with the NSA through the Tempora programme.

Thirdly, we know that 11 domestic state agencies have permission to fly drones in the UK, although the use to which these surveillance drones are being trialled or put is not clear yet, partly because there is no requirement for individual police forces or other bodies to report to the Home Office and police forces tend to cite the s23 ‘security body’ exemption to Freedom of Information Requests.  

In the wake of these claims, Germany has also reportedly suspended its troubled drones programme pending a thorough review of ‘all associated civil and constitutional guidelines and ethical questions.’ According to Der Speigel, the Social Democrats and Conservatives are in discussion about issuing a statement condemning targeted killing by the US. The draft agreement between the Social Democrats and Conservatives obtained by the newspaper states: ‘we categorically reject illegal killings by drones. Germany will support the use of unmanned weapons systems for the purposes of international disarmament and arms control.’ The issue of a clear statement on the law and policy concerning drone use by the German government may serve as an excellent model to other EU states as they define their position, especially those wishing to rebuild German trust. Meanwhile in Brussels this week, EU Defence Ministers have instructed the European Defence Agency to study the military requirements and costs of an EU surveillance drone.

Underpinning the Stroebele meeting is increasing concern that the intelligence agencies are operating outside their constitutional mandate. Stroebele himself visited Snowden last month to discuss the possibility of the whistleblower giving evidence in Berlin. Stroebele says this could happen if the majority of MPs voted in favour: the debate on how to investigate is well under way in Berlin. In the UK, the ISC review of the legislative framework governing intelligence agencies’ access to information has been extended to consider some broader questions concerning the balance of privacy and security. This is a welcome start. It is hoped that the ISC may consider use of its new power to examine operations at RAF Croughton under s2(1) Justice and Security Act 2013. However the ISC review will take place almost exclusively in private and the hands of the PM-nominated Committee are tied in a number of respects.The debate in Parliament on how to supplement the ISC review has only just begun.

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