British plans to expand the use of secret court hearings to protect intelligence shared by the United States and other allies and to extend state snooping on the Internet are vital to protect the public, Prime Minister David Cameron said Wednesday, after a blitz of criticism from campaigners, lawmakers and even his own deputy.
Cameron is seeking to overhaul surveillance laws, saying new powers are needed to check email traffic, web browsing and interactions on social media sites, used by criminals and terrorists to communicate.
His government also hopes to pass legislation which would grant ministers power to order some civil court cases and inquests to be held in private, when they believe there is a risk of exposing secrets, particularly sensitive material shared by allies.
But amid public concern over the scope of the measures, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg warned he and his Liberal Democrat party - the junior partner in the country's Conservative-led coalition government - could not support the plans without major changes.
Clegg said in a letter to Britain's National Security Council that proposals for more surveillance must be thoroughly debated with the public. Fears over security “cannot be allowed to ride roughshod over the principles of open justice,” he wrote.
In a report published Wednesday, Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights - a panel of lawmakers from the House of Commons and House of Lords - insisted the government had failed to provide proof that it needed to hold some court hearings in secret.
The plans relate only to civil cases involving claims for damages, not criminal prosecutions.
Cameron insisted his security plans would likely be included in the government's annual announcement of its planned new legislation, scheduled to be made next month by Queen Elizabeth II. “There is still time to deal with everybody's concerns,” he said.
“As I see it, there are some significant gaps in our defenses, gaps because of the moving on of technology - people making telephone calls through the Internet, rather than through fixed lines,” Cameron explained.
There are “also gaps in our defenses because it isn't currently possible to use intelligence information in a court of law without sometimes endangering national security,” he insisted.
The proposals for ministers to be able to authorize secret court hearings come after two legal tangles related to former Guantanamo Bay detainees.
In one case, a British judge ordered the release of a previously secret summary of CIA documents on ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee Binyam Mohamed's mistreatment in Pakistan in 2002.
Ministers say disclosure has hampered intelligence sharing between Washington and London. The White House complained that exposing the material undermined a long-standing convention that nations don't disclose intelligence shared by their allies.
“The Americans have got nervous that we are going to start revealing information, and they have started cutting back on what they disclose,” Ken Clarke, Britain's Justice Secretary, told BBC radio. “I can't force the Americans to give our intelligence people full cooperation - if they fear our courts, they won't give us the material.”
In a second instance, Britain chose in 2010 to pay millions of pounds (dollars) in settlements to 16 former Guantanamo Bay detainees who alleged U.K. complicity in their harsh treatment overseas, rather than contest the allegations in court.
Clarke said in that case, and potentially in others in the future, the government had made no admission of guilt but was not able to defend its actions, because to do so would need intelligence officers to discuss their sources and spying techniques in public.
Discussing sources in public could potentially put their lives at risk, he warned.
“I'd love open justice, but let's have some common sense here. Open justice cannot be at the expense of lives being lost,” Clarke told Sky News television.
In Washington, the White House declined to comment on the proposed legislation, calling it an “internal matter.”
“However, our close cooperation with the U.K. on counterterrorism is critical to keeping American and British citizens safe,” added White House spokesman Tommy Vietor.
Legislators said that Clarke's proposals were based on “spurious assertions about the catastrophic consequences of information being wrongly disclosed.”
In considering U.S. fears over intelligence sharing, Britain “ought not to be too hasty to legislate at the behest of its more powerful ally, especially where the pressure to act is rooted in a misunderstanding,” lawmakers said in their report.
Privacy campaigners welcomed Clegg's call for consultation over plans to extend online surveillance.
Though full details have yet to be made public, the Home Office has said the intention is to check data such as times, dates, and participants involved in online contacts. No contents of any communications would be accessible without a warrant.
“No one is going to be looking through ordinary people's emails or Facebook posts,” Home Secretary Theresa May said. - Sapa-AP