The Zombie Bill Is Back

What is the least believable moment in the latest James Bond film? There are plenty of candidates, but the one that you may have overlooked is the public hearing where M defends the actions of her agency. That may be plausible for a movie set in...

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What is the least believable moment in the latest James Bond film? There are plenty of candidates, but the one that you may have overlooked is the public hearing where M defends the actions of her agency. That may be plausible for a movie set in the USA, where the head of the FBI can and does show up in the press all the time. But that sort of thing doesn't happen in Britain. Our security services simply don't trust us to know anything whatsoever about them.

When the police mess up, the chief constable is on TV. When social workers mess up, their boss is on TV. But when the security services fail to act on all the varied intelligence at their disposal to track a highly visible suspect who commits a horrific public murder, we have the Home Secretary on TV. Worse, we have all the people who wish they were Home Secretary blaming the failure of the Communications Data Bill rather than the failure of the security services.

This is clearly opportunism, as can be seen from the words of this Lib-Dem peer:

Lord Carlile told the BBC that while it was not known whether the bill would have prevented this incident, "it might have [and] it would certainly help to prevent similar incidents in the future".

In other words, the Woolwich murder teaches us nothing about the need for CDB. It's just an excuse to resurrect the zombie bill no government can kill.

Why the opportunism? The news coverage and political backing shows the traces of carefully managed PR by political pros. Some well-connected people, able to influence a range of pretenders to the political throne, want to re-animate CDB and don't want us asking too many questions about why. Instead they are harnessing party politics and human revulsion at an otherwise unrelated crime to draw our eyes away from the well-established problems with CDB.

There's no doubt the changing, meshed society that's evolving under the influence of the internet poses new challenges for the security services, creating cracks in the protective wall they want to erect around us. But the CDB is clearly overkill - even the parliamentary committees formed to review it agree.

The problem with CDB is not the goal of empowering security services to protect us from bad actors (of the criminal type rather than the thespian variety). It's that the authors of the bill - all acting within the worldview of our ultra-secretive security services, if not in their direct employment - don't want to tell us the powers they actually want. So instead, they ask for an expansive, dangerous and ill-defined array of general powers that lack the corresponding transparency to protect us from their abuse. The things they want are hidden in there somewhere, but they don't want us to know where and they don't care about the harm the over-reach threatens.

We don't need the Communications Data Bill back. But as I've said before we do need some legislation that fills the crack in the defensive wall. We need that replacement to be carefully applied filler, and not a heavy layer of plaster covered in political whitewash. All the time unseen powers orchestrate cynical campaigns to leverage public tragedy, rather than stepping forward to honestly explain what powers they minimally need, we can be sure the right legislation has yet to be written.


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