David Davis, a member of parliament in the United Kingdom, has been visiting Washington to gather and share information about an issue dear to his heart: government assaults on personal liberty and privacy. In the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations, this issue is no longer seen through a Left/ Right political lens, so no one should be surprised to find a member of the UK’s Conservative Party meeting with Americans across the range of political persuasions—from quasi-Tea Party types to liberal Democrats.
Like Davis, WhoWhatWhy sees the world as increasingly inter-connected. We don’t buy the notion that journalism is inherently local or national anymore. That’s why we increasingly make the trek across the Atlantic, and why we are researching developments outside the U.S., fostering alliances, recruiting foreign correspondents and more.
We’ve been especially interested in developments in London, including the hacking of cell phones by journalists, media collusion with law enforcement, the ubiquity of surveillance cameras in the city, the Guardian’s role in breaking the NSA/Snowden scandal—taking the lead on a principally American story—and the British authorities’ raid on the Guardian, which resulted in the paper being compelled literally to smash computers that held information related to Snowden’s revelations.
We in the U.S. are so distracted with the inconsequential scandal and manufactured news event of the moment that we tend to miss significant events elsewhere that can throw light on our own situation. (See video of my talk on this topic here)
In early April, on my most recent trip across The Pond, I had the opportunity to sit down with Davis for coffee in his office at Portcullis House, adjoining the Houses of Parliament.
Davis is an intriguing figure. He was raised by a single mother in a tough housing project and is very much self-made. At university, while already a die-hard Conservative and head of the conservative students association, he insisted that all of his members join Amnesty International. Highly skeptical of government, he nonetheless is a strong backer of funding to provide legal representation to those who cannot afford their own.
Davis was a shadow Home Secretary at one time and for a while considered in the running to become Prime Minister. But at least in part because of his views and his tendency to say things that displease the establishment, that didn’t happen. Today, he is seen by more than a few, including those who do not share his overall political orientation, as a man who cares deeply and speaks his mind, no matter what. In recent years, he was a leader of Tory opposition to war with Syria.
On the issue of government surveillance and privacy, no elected Briton is more outspoken. I first heard him speak at a conference last year, and have since had lengthy chats with him. The Q&A below, the first of a two-part excerpt, is based on the more recent such chat, in early April. Some comments have been truncated and are revised for clarity. “Britishisms” have been rendered in style more familiar to Americans.
A Chat with David Davis, Part One
While WhoWhatWhy is expanding our view eastward, some UK politicians, activists and experts are looking increasingly in our direction. They find the U.S. in some ways a more vital place in the battle over privacy, secrecy, and accountability. These include the U.S.’s greater constitutional protections and comparatively superior freedom of information situation and legislative oversight capabilities.
Davis last popped over to Washington in January. One thing he gleaned is an uprooting of the conventional order of things.
David Davis: I think your Republican Party is changing. I went to see a Republican congressman called Amash [Justin Amash of Michigan]. He was the one who put in the amendment to the Appropriations bill to cut down the mass surveillance by the NSA, which got within seven votes of winning even though nobody campaigned for it. He said “You know, the old, the old tunes of regressive foreign policy and authoritarian domestic policy no longer gets you through the primaries in the Republican Party.” And this was in the week in which Dick Cheney’s daughter pulled out of her primary. So I think the world is changing in those terms
[Amash, who is close with Ron Paul, is loathed by the Republican establishment, some of whom are actively backing primary challengers]
Russ Baker: It’s interesting that you were over there. Do you visit the U.S. much?
D: Only with a particular purpose. So this time, what was happening here was, the Guardian had run all the NSA stuff…. It hadn’t taken off in terms of wider coverage by the rest of the English press. The conventional wisdom in Britain was that Britain didn’t care about privacy and intrusions of state.
Davis appearing on UK talk show Question Time
Well, I didn’t believe that from my own personal experience with people. And I didn’t believe the opinion polls. We’d come out highest in Europe in concerns for our own privacy. And yet somehow we were the only country in Europe that wasn’t outraged by the behavior of GCHQ [the UK’s version of NSA] and NSA. And I took the view that there were a number of boring technical campaigning reasons. (Davis here uses “campaigning” in the British sense, to mean promotion of one’s work or views) Boring technical reason Number One was The Guardian newspaper was at odds with every other newspaper in Britain because of the Leveson Inquiry and the phone bugging….So no other newspaper could follow that kind of line.
So that’s Point One. Point Two is that The Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, is an incredibly clever, esoteric man, a very good editor, but he’s a bloody awful politician. He doesn’t know how to campaign in the normal sense of the word.
R: By the way, why did they not do more about their computers being smashed?
D: I think they were embarrassed, to be honest, that they didn’t make a fuss about it. But there were two reasons they allowed it. One was of course they had the information in the States. The First Amendment would protect them there while it doesn’t here. The second reason is that they would be tied up in court cases for the whole year if they did not make some sort of concession. If I had been them I would have made the video [of the computer smashup] go viral. (The Guardian recently released the video.)
I saw Alan and I said: “What you need to do, Alan, is to have a story appear in different papers over three days. It’s a rule of thumb if a story appears in different papers over three days, it bites in the public consciousness. People start talking about it, by the water cooler, or the coffee machine, or in the bar, or in the kitchen, or over dinner. But if it appears just one day, it doesn’t get talked about.
So I said to Alan, “What’s your biggest story yet to come?” And he said it was the texting story. That the agencies were picking up two hundred million texts a day. And I said: “Well, can you hold that back, and I will provide you three or four days of news coverage before you get to that. And then you run it.”
So I went to the States, spent a week collecting data on the most important single issue—privacy. I went to see Leahy [Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont], the judiciary chairman. I went to see Feinstein [Dianne Feinstein of California] and a number of others… the two chairmen of the senior Senate committees… and a number of companies… I came back with a whole lot of stories.
“Just a Phone Bill”
So what I did was, in The Daily Mail on Sunday—it’s one of the big tabloid newspapers—I had a full-page story about my metadata. Because up to this point the Home Secretary was saying “Metadata is just a phone bill. What does it matter if they’ve seen the phone bill?” So I had a page showing my metadata was a map of where I’d been on a given day. I picked it up at a meeting with lots of journalists at a convention, and you can pick it up from my phone.
R: From your phone?
D: From my phone. I asked Vodafone, the mobile phone people, to give me my metadata for a year. And they did and then we mapped it out to show what you could learn from it. So you could see who I called, you could see what websites I had accessed, you could see who I texted, and you could see where I was. If you had the whole database you could see who I’d been speaking to.
So it gave you the whole story of David Davis for a day. And this sort of shocked people, including in the House. That was on Sunday. On Monday, I did a piece in The Times all about what was happening in the States, and the President had initiated a panel who reported robustly that they should shut down some of these schemes. I appeared on radio. The next day or day after I had a piece in the second-biggest financial journal about the impact on business and the technology industries here, doing harm to them. And the next day [the Guardian’s] Rusbridger published his piece and he was on the Today program as well. So we had four, five days. Do you know what Any Questions is?
R: I’ve heard of it.
D: It’s one of our highest prestige radio programs. And on Any Questions on Friday night of that week, Jonathan Dimbleby, the chairman, asked the audience “Who thinks it is important?” —and 100 percent put their hands up. Six months previously, nobody would have put their hands up. So we suddenly transitioned. So that was the reason to get to the States. It was to give me the ammunition to come back here and make the story fly.
R: An awful lot about it is really about tactics.
D: Uh-huh. Because you’re up against the government. And the government is bigger than us. My entire staff will fit easily into this office [motions to a modestly sized space], with lots of room to spare. That’s all we have. That and our ingenuity and our speed. Whereas the government has the whole machine. You’ve got two agencies down here and another one in Cheltenham. No editor ever challenges what they say because they say, “Well, we can’t tell you that, it’s secret.” They have got, in a way, a sort of unfair advantage in this debate. So we respond with the facts.
To give you an example, one of the things that was noticeable in the States was that the claims of the agencies were contradicted by the investigation of the Judiciary Committee. They looked at the claim of 58 plots having been stopped by the mass surveillance exercise. They found it to be none. The only plot of any sort they found was $8,500 being transferred from San Diego to Somalia…. “That’s it?” So we could use that back here. We could turn around and say “Look. People are claiming impossible stuff. They claim 58, it was zero.” So, that’s very, very important. In an issue like this, where there are very few facts….
This is the country that invented James Bond. We like our spies; we want to believe our spies. What they say is not necessarily true, but it tends to be taken that way, so you have to come back with a fact that can knock it all down. That’s one example.
R: How much are you depending on the United States media?
D: Quite a lot. The U.S. is more open than Britain is by a long margin. Quite a lot.
Davis cites the case of Binyam Mohamed, who was arrested in Pakistan, then rendered to third countries, including Morocco, where he was tortured before he ended up in Guantanamo Bay.
He was not a particularly nice man but he obviously had been tortured….There was a big, big battle in our courts over whether they could release certain information implying that the government had some complicity in torture. And what happened was that one of your [U.S.] district courts released all the information. And so our court became almost irrelevant.
R: On one of the American Civil Liberties Union’s state websites, I saw them stating that something along the lines that more often than not, when government agencies refuse to release things for ‘national security’ reasons it’s to avoid embarrassment.’
D: Let me tell you a story that will highlight the problem. Many moons ago, I’d say about 1998-99, I was the chairman of our Public Accounts Committee, which is a sort of mixture of a finance committee and oversight committee.
Here, Davis references MI-5, the UK’s domestic intelligence agency, and MI-6, its foreign intelligence outfit, and the UK’s NAO, similar to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
What was interesting was the expenditure was being overrun on buildings—the MI-5 building over here and the MI-6 building—I think to the tune of 150 million pounds. And the NAO did a report on this. And, very, very unusually for the spooks, it was published. And it came to me in its pre-redacted form and then with the redactions. Now, again unusual.
The structure of this report was: Chapter One—Introduction, Chapter 2—MI-5, Chapter 3—MI-6, Chapter 4— Conclusion. The chapters 2 and 3 were virtually identical chapters about two different buildings. And each department, each agency had redacted its own chapter. And the redactions were different. So I said to the editor, ‘Go back to MI-5 and say MI-6 is happy with all these things being released. And then go back to MI-6 and say MI-5 is happy with all these things being released. We ended up with about three words being redacted in the whole thing. They were redacting to avoid embarrassment. What you might call political redaction.
Read Part Two, Davis talks about whistleblowers, what the UK can learn from the U.S. about checks and balances, and how he helped stop the U.K. from going to war in Syria.
IMAGE: Tracking Map