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Deputy Prime Minister Wants to Start an Obama-style Debate into GCHQ Surveillance

In an article published in the Guardian Monday, Clegg says, "The quality of the debate in the US provides an unflattering contrast to the muted debate this side of the Atlantic."
In an article published in the Guardian Monday, Clegg says, "The quality of the debate in the US provides an unflattering contrast to the muted debate this side of the Atlantic."

But Clegg won't let it lie. In an article published in the Guardian Monday, he says, "The quality of the debate in the US provides an unflattering contrast to the muted debate this side of the Atlantic." He does not doubt either the need or right for the intelligence services to use new technology to protect the people. "That is entirely right – I would expect them to do so. The question is whether the development of these new capabilities is proportionate and held properly accountable."

He sees two primary problems with the current regime. The first is similar to US concerns over the NSA: "the distinction between domestic and external communications has become blurred, with the result that GCHQ may capture UK to UK as well as international traffic." The second also mirrors US concerns over the secretive FISA court: "It is not enough for the agencies to claim that they strike the correct balance between privacy and national security: they must be seen to do so. That means greater transparency, and strong, exacting, third-party oversight."

Clegg wants reforms within the bodies that oversee surveillance and for the issues to be debated openly both within parliament and the public at large. "I have not yet been able to agree these ideas within government with my coalition partners but I believe they are important and much-needed reforms," he wrote in the Guardian.

But he has gone further and commissioned his own independent enquiry. In a speech yesterday at the Royal United Services Institute, he said, "I’m delighted to be able to announce today that the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) has agreed to establish an expert panel to review the use of internet data for surveillance purposes.

"The panel will consist of a group of experts, drawn from the worlds of intelligence, technology, civil liberties, and law, and chaired by Professor Michael Clarke, RUSI’s Director General. They will look at the principles that ought to govern our use of surveillance, examine current practice, and make recommendations for reform and, where necessary, new legislation. They will look at the specific challenges I have set out today, including the proportionate use of bulk data, but also the question of access to communications data held by private companies too."

There is undoubtedly some politicking involved in this speech. Next year is election year in the UK, and neither the Conservative Party nor the Liberal Democrats would like to see the current coalition government continue. Clegg has chosen civil liberties as an area in which the LibDems can distance themselves from the Tories. While David Cameron has placed his weight behind supporting the GCHQ status quo and dampening any public debate (forcing the Guardian to destroy hard disks and detaining Glenn Greenwald's partner at Heathrow), Clegg has decided to press for transparency in government and intelligence.

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