Watchdog Critical of Errors in UK Gov't Surveillance

By Kevin McCandless | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

London ( - A United Kingdom government watchdog has warned that police and intelligence agencies here have grown increasingly sloppy and mistake-prone in how they watch British citizens.

In a recent report, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, Sir Swinton Thomas, said British police and spies had committed an "unacceptably high" number of errors when tapping into private communications.

Between January 2005 and March 2006, Thomas said, clerical errors on warrants had led to several instances where the wrong phones were tapped, the wrong letters opened and the wrong people monitored.

He said a total of 66 errors had been committed, up from the 45 errors recorded in 2004.

As commissioner, Thomas is charged with making sure that the 795 intelligence, police and other government agencies, which are allowed to intercept private data communications, comply with the proper regulations.

He said the errors were caused by the immense pressure law enforcement agencies had been under during the reporting period, with "some employees working around the clock."

In total, 2,407 new warrants were issued to allow agencies to listen in on individual's conversations and to read their e-mail and letters - an average of some 160 new warrants a month.

By contrast, in the period from January 2001 to December 2001, only 1,445 new warrants were issued - an average of 120 a month.

Each warrant allows security services to tap an individual's phones, open mail, and read e-mails. Criminal warrants generally run for three months and national security warrants for six.

The number of warrants in the public portion of the annual report does not include those issued in Northern Ireland or those granted to intelligence agencies such as MI6, which operate abroad.

For the second year in a row, Thomas called for the abolition of the "Wilson Doctrine," a regulation introduced in 1966 by then Prime Minister Harold Wilson banning the tapping of phones of members of the House of Commons and House of Lords.

Thomas said the doctrine placed legislators "above the law," enabling them to engage in serious crime or terrorism much more easily.

When the watchdog commissioner last recommended abandoning the rule in March 2006, Prime Minister Tony Blair turned him down.

Meanwhile, civil liberty organizations criticized the number of phone and Internet activity records of individual citizens being monitored by law enforcement agencies.

In the period covered by Thomas' latest report, agencies made 439,054 requests for personal data.

A spokesman for the human rights group, Liberty, said it was time to drop a long-time ban of phone tap evidence in British courts when it came to terrorism cases.

Under the British legal system, government agencies are allowed to collect interception material, but prosecutors are barred from using it in criminal proceedings.

While many legal figures have called for relaxing the ban, the government has said that it would be problematic given how fast technology is changing and that it would interfere with the work of the intelligence agencies.

Gareth Crossman, the Liberty director of policy, said using intercept evidence would make it far easier to give suspected terrorists a full and fair criminal trial than it is now.

If warrants were issued under proper judicial authority, he said, the current British practice of detaining terrorism suspects without trial would be curtailed.

It would also result in the government being more careful about issuing so many interception warrants, Crossman argued.

"If they know the material is potentially in the public domain, they would be more careful about how it was gathered," he added.

Alan Hatcher, a renowned British security expert, said Monday interception material is an invaluable tool for prosecutors and should be allowed in all cases, given the proper guidance.

"If they admit it [as evidence], it would tremendous, not only on the terrorism side but on the criminal side as well," he said.

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