Legal action over Prime Minister’s secret order to British spies

(Reprieve) – Reprieve and Privacy International have launched legal action today after the government refused to reveal the subject matter or contents of a secret Prime Ministerial order governing the activities of the British security services.

It was revealed last year in a separate case brought by Privacy International that the Prime Minister has made three such orders, or “Directions”, which require intrusive and risky covert activity by the UK security services to be overseen by the Intelligence Services Commissioner. Two of these Directions have been made public but the Third Direction remains secret, redacted from public documents.

The two directions that have been published cover the interrogation of detainees held in another country by British personnel and the handling of bulk personal datasets by the intelligence agencies. The Third Direction is thought to cover an area at least as serious and potentially intrusive.

GCHQ dish array.
Image Source: Nilfanion, Wikimedia, Creative Commons

Reprieve and PI are concerned that the conduct overseen under the secret Third Direction may breach the UK’s domestic and international obligations under the Human Rights Act and European Convention on Human Rights if it involves the use of lethal force, harsh interrogation techniques, handing over detainees to a country that uses torture, incommunicado detention without trial, surveillance, blackmail or censorship.

Director of Reprieve, Maya Foa said:

“The British public have a right to know what the security agencies are doing in their name. We know this secret policy hides a large area of covert activity that is at least as serious and intrusive as interrogating detainees overseas and the mass collection of personal data. We also know from bitter experience that without basic transparency, British spooks are liable to cross legal and ethical red lines. The Prime Minister needs to stop hiding behind this secret Third Direction and have the courage and leadership to tell the British public what her government is up to.”

Legal Officer at Privacy International, Millie Graham Wood said:

“It is wrong in principle for there to be an entire area of intelligence activity about which the public knows nothing at all. The risks of such secrecy are obvious given that the Commissioners who are supposed to oversee the activity have previously accepted the intelligence agencies’ interpretation of what is legal without question. We invite the Prime Minister to publish the third direction — redacted, summarised or gisted as appropriate - to ensure there really is full and open oversight of the intelligence agencies.”

This report prepared by Repreive.