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The lives of others

The bugging of MP Sadiq Khan’s conversations with a constituent in prison shows once more that Britain is a fully-fledged surveillance state and also that the New Labour government has created a monster it has no effective control over. The secret state within the state has its own agenda about how to protect “national interests” – and the government will always be at least one step behind.

For Justice secretary Jack Straw was clearly at a loss yesterday to explain how a member of the government was secretly recorded and why he knew nothing about it, even though his civil servants did. The truth is that New Labour has started where the notorious Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, left off when the Berlin Wall came down, which was the subject of the brilliant film “The Lives of Others”. One of the government’s first priorities after its 1997 election victory was to prepare legislation giving a range of agencies widespread surveillance powers. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 included arbitrary powers to intercept and seize emails from internet companies’ servers.

Since then, various state agencies – more than 600 in all - have literally been on the rampage. Councils, police and intelligence services are tapping and intercepting the phone calls, emails and letters of hundreds of thousands of people every year, an official report by Sir Paul Kennedy, the Interception of Communications Commissioner (!) has revealed. The report shows that in the last nine months of 2006, there were 253,557 applications to intercept private communications under surveillance laws. Most were approved. Those being bugged included people suspected of illegal fly-tipping. In some cases, the wrong phones were tapped simply because of administrative errors.

With all these powers, it is no surprise that the police were prepared to bug an MP’s conversations with a constituent who is fighting deportation on spurious terror charges. In the shadowy world of the secret state, any compromising information gleaned in this way is always useful as a bargaining chip and to add pressure on ministers when the police ask for more powers. Khan’s constituent, Babar Ahmad, has in fact not been charged with any offence in Britain. Instead, he has languished in jail since 2004, fighting deportation to the US. The US authorities are not required to produce any evidence to back up their demand, thanks to a New Labour deal struck with the White House.

In the Khan incident, Scotland Yard is said to have applied “significant” pressure on ex-policeman Mark Kearney, who was working at the prison in Milton Keyes when the MP visited Ahmad, to carry out the bugging operation. Kearney said that while he did record the visit he “never felt it was justified in these circumstances". He now says he fears for his safety following the leaking of the Khan incident. So someone high up in Scotland Yard decided that MP Khan was fair game, especially as he had apparently got up their noses when representing other people charged with terror offences and when he was chair of the human rights group Liberty. Sir Ian Blair, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, won’t have to worry. He is, of course, New Labour’s favourite policeman, defended to the hilt in the wake of the reports criticising his force over the Menezes killing in 2005.

The Khan affair shows that the state within the state is becoming more and more arrogant, determining its own agenda and priorities. Having handed the state incredible, wide-ranging powers, the government itself naturally joins the list of targets. As the economic situation worsens and social unrest looms, state agencies will be redoubling their activities “in defence of the realm”, concocting provocations along the way. We have been warned.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor
5 February 2008

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