Terrorist murder of British soldier rekindles calls for the Communications Data Bill

The Communications Data Bill, shelved because of opposition by coalition Lib-Dem partners, would grant law enforcement agencies instant access to communications traffic data (not content) without a warrant. Last week, off-duty British soldier Lee Rigby was brutally murdered on the streets of London in what appears to be a politically-motivated terror attack.

This weekend several high-profile politicians have used the incident to call for the resurrection of the Communications Data Bill. The implication is that such powers may have prevented the murder, and/or may prevent future atrocities. Labour’s former Home Secretary Alan Johnson told the BBC’s Andrew Marr political show, “We need to get this on the statute book before the next general election and I think it is absolutely crucial, indeed I think it is a resignation issue for a home secretary if the cabinet do not support her in this central part of what the security services do.”

Indeed, a former leader of the Conservative Party, now Lord Howard, went so far as to suggest that the Conservative Party and Labour Party (which has always been in favor of the security forces having such powers) could unite over this issue to pass a bill despite Lib-Dem opposition. It would require political horse-trading, for such an alliance would almost certainly force the Lib-Dems to withdraw from the coalition; and any subsequent vote of confidence would come perilously close to bringing down the government without their support. With Labour consistently higher than the Conservatives in the polls, and a public perception of disunity (as usual, largely over Europe) within the Conservative Party, this might prove a risk too far for prime minister Cameron.

Nevertheless, sufficient clues were left in the Queen’s Speech to enable the bill’s resurrection within this parliament.

Opponents of the Bill, however, are quick to point out that it would have made no difference to the murder of Lee Rigby. Writing in the Guardian’s Comment is Free section, Henry Porter commented, “If I didn't believe these were the first reactions to a shocking crime, I'd put the interventions of Jack Straw, Lord (John) Reid, Lord (Alan) West and Lord (Alex) Carlile down to cynical opportunism, because I'm afraid that is very much how it looked.” He points out that none of them have produced any evidence to show that the Bill could have stopped the crime.

“The simple flaw in their case is that both men [the arrested suspects] were already known to MI5, which was aware of their associations and radicalisation,” he writes. “If intelligence officers had thought it necessary, they possessed all the powers they needed to monitor the pair's emails, texts, phone calls and internet use. Some 500,000 intercepts are already granted every year.”

Emma Carr, deputy director of Big Brother Watch, is similarly minded. “John Reid and others’ attempt to make a political argument about ‘essential’ legislation just hours after the brutal murder in Woolwich this week was remarkable.” She is not, however, completely against any form of communications bill. She too points out that MI5 already has all the necessary powers to have monitored the suspects. The implication is that failure to detect the attack has more to do with limited resources than with limited powers.

Big Brother Watch believes that the security forces would be better served by greater but more targeted powers than the shallow full population surveillance provided by the current draft of the bill. It, she suggests, “risks diverting resources away from the security services at a time when they are more in need of targeted surveillance than ever before.”

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