It’s time for the Prime Minister to fix shockingly lax intelligence sharing arrangements with other governments

Abdel Hakim Belhaj

Privacy International (PI) has today sent a detailed report and list of questions to the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, following her admission that failures in the UK system governing intelligence sharing with international partners helped facilitate the detention, retention and “appalling treatment” of Abdel Hakim Belhaj and Fatima Boudchar.

Yesterday, in a letter written to Belhaj and Boudchar and read out in the UK parliament, Prime Minister May made the extraordinary admission that “The UK government shared information about you with its international partners”, following which both individuals were subjected to “appalling treatment”. The statement went on to say that the UK government “should have done more to reduce the risk that you would be mistreated” and that it accepted that “this was a failing on our part”.

PI has provided a detailed report to the Prime Minister outlining outstanding weaknesses in the UK’s current safeguards and oversight of intelligence sharing, which need to be urgently addressed, and asked her whether she will prioritise reforms, warning that failure to do so “would severely undermine the UK Government’s commitment to learn from past mistakes and public confidence in the current system”. Specifically, PI has today asked that the Government:

1. Make public existing intelligence sharing arrangements — including the text of the current version of the agreement governing the Five Eyes (US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) alliance.

2. Make public all relevant rules and policies governing intelligence sharing.

3. Establish, through primary legislation, a legal framework governing intelligence sharing, which requires, amongst other things:

  • All intelligence sharing agreements to be subject to approval by both executive and legislative bodies, and to be presumptively public;
  • Intelligence sharing agreements to permit oversight bodies to have access to information provided to and received from a foreign partner;
  • International and domestic legal constraints that apply to direct surveillance by intelligence agencies also apply equally to information obtained through intelligence sharing arrangements;
  • Prior independent authorisation for sharing intelligence with a foreign partner;
  • Transparency as to the circumstances in which intelligence agencies will share information and the procedures governing such sharing, including limiting sharing to where it is in accordance with law, necessary and proportionate, and articulating the process for authorising sharing;
  • Regular audits of how foreign partners store, manage and use the information that has been shared, and examination of financial resources allocated to intelligence sharing, including for providing equipment and training to foreign partners.

4. Amend the Data Protection Bill to provide appropriate levels of protection for cross-border transfers of personal data by intelligence agencies.

PI’s major report on intelligence sharing, released last month and based on an international collaborative investigation carried out by 40 NGOs in 42 countries, found alarming weaknesses in oversight arrangements that are supposed to govern the sharing of intelligence between governments, including between the UK and foreign intelligence agencies.

Theresa May’s admission comes at the very same time that US senators are debating whether to confirm Gina Haspel, a US intelligence official accused of complicity in the US post-9/11 torture programme, as head of the CIA. In a 2017 YouGov poll carried out by PI, 78% of British people said they do not trust the US President Donald Trump to only use surveillance powers for legitimate reasons. There is widespread concern that Trump will also use his powers for personal gain. Three quarters of Britons want the UK Government to tell the public what safeguards exist to stop Trump from misusing their data.

Scarlet Kim of Privacy International said:

“The extraordinary admission of failures made by the Prime Minister and the apology to Abdel Hakim Belhaj and Fatima Boudchar are a welcome first step. However, this apology must be followed by urgent reforms, to ensure this never happens again.

Despite the Government’s insistence that lessons have been learned, the UK system is still dangerously opaque and under-regulated. Without better transparency and strong safeguards governing intelligence sharing, abuses similar to those experienced by Belhaj and Boudchar are likely to happen again, and indeed may be occurring now.

It is essential that the Government take immediate steps to address these weaknesses and ensure that the UK never again allows its intelligence services to be complicit in abduction and torture.”

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