Cabinet ministers and members of the national security council were told nothing about the existence and scale of the vast data-gathering programmes run by British and American intelligence agencies, a former member of the government has revealed.
Chris Huhne, who was in the cabinet for two years until 2012, said ministers were in "utter ignorance" of the two biggest covert operations, Prism and Tempora. The former Liberal Democrat MP admitted he was shocked and mystified by the surveillance capabilities disclosed by the Guardian from files leaked by the whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Writing in Monday's Guardian, Huhne also questioned whether the Home Office had deliberately misled parliament about the need for the communications data bill when GCHQ, the government's eavesdropping headquarters, already had remarkable and extensive snooping capabilities.
He said this lack of information and accountability showed "the supervisory arrangements for our intelligence services need as much updating as their bugging techniques".
This total lack of democratic oversight makes it clear that the UK's spies are running amok, making it up as they go along while keeping the politicians in the dark. The police have known for years about GCHQ's spying, because they use it to bypass the need for search warrants. But nobody thought to tell the people who were supposed to be keeping an eye on it all, the politicians. Apparently they had no "need to know".
Which means all of these operations are fundamentally illegitimate. GCHQ derives its power from Parliament. If Parliament's representatives - Cabinet and the NSC - weren't told, then they were operating without any democratic authority. And when a government institution does that, its time for it to be shut down.