At the end of 2013, we learned that Britain's GCHQ had been spying on the lawyers of a man they rendered to torture in Libya. Today, the investigatory powers tribunal ruled that that spying was illegal:
GCHQ, Britain’s national security surveillance agency, has been ordered to destroy legally privileged communications it unlawfully collected from a Libyan rendition victim.
The ruling marks the first time in its 15-year history that the investigatory powers tribunal has upheld a specific complaint against the intelligence services, lawyers have said. It is also the first time the tribunal has ordered a security service to give up surveillance material.
The IPT says GCHQ must destroy two documents which are legally privileged communications belonging to a former opponent of the Gaddafi regime, Sami al-Saadi, who was sent back to Libya in 2004 in a joint MI6-CIA “rendition” operation with his wife and four children under 12.
The tribunal, chaired by Mr Justice Burton, ruled that GCHQ must give an undertaking that parts of those documents must be “destroyed or deleted so as to render such information inaccessible to the agency in the future”. The agency has to submit a secret report within 14 days confirming that the destruction has been carried out.
Good. But shouldn't those responsible for this illegal spying also be being prosecuted?
Meanwhile, its worth remembering that the IPT has only ruled because we learned about this abuse. But GCHQ operates in total secrecy. While they now have rules protecting legally privileged communications, that secrecy means that we have no way of knowing whether they're actually following them. And with no individuals being held accountable, there's simply no incentive for them to do so.