A series of FOIA requests have revealed the cost (currently standing at £6,865,000) of UK police operations at the Ecuadorean embassy. However, after police salaries and logistics were calculated, it became apparent that over half of this amount could not be accounted for. In May 2014, another FOIA requested a “break down” of police costs. The reply was written by the Metropolitan Police Service's (Met) Diplomatic Protection Group (DPG) and it stated that these details could not be provided because they might “undermine National Security (NS)”. The NS section of the reply also states:
The confirmation or denial that any other information is held concerning the police operation at the Ecuador Embassy […] could identify other work which may or may not be undertaken by other security bodies and organisations that are required to operate in a covert manner within the Law enforcement environment.
The confirmation or denial that further information is held regarding the level of police officers and actual resources deployed to particular operations is likely to provide a valuable indication of the tactics being used.
In other words, the requested information could reveal UK security services “covert” activities in the vicinity of the embassy. And the disproportionate nature of the police operation (Julian Assange is only wanted for questioning, something that is now illegal under UK extradition law) is related to both NS and Sweden's European Arrest Warrant (EAW). Indeed, the DPG reply connects the refusal to confirm or deny with both “law enforcement and national security”. Further, the “tactics being used” are not only the ever present police officers waiting to arrest Assange.
The phrase: X “can neither confirm nor deny” Y, because of “National Security” is often used to conceal activity that is not related to NS, but is political in nature. The circumstances generated by the EAW, such as police operations at the Ecuadorean embassy, should not come under NS. However, it is arguable (from a certain perspective) that the publishing activities, past and future, of WikiLeaks are a matter of NS.
The conflation outside the embassy between NS interests, political interests (pursued by Special Branch, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ) and the non-political work of the DPG is clear, but do matters go further, and just what is the NS dictum concealing with regards to the Met's unaccounted expenses?
A Mutual Legal Assistance (MLA) request by the Swedish prosecutor (Marianne Ny) to question Assange either in the embassy or via video link would require a UK judicial authority to review whether the prosecutor's evidence met a "reasonable grounds" test. This process would also examine the evidence in relation to the charges, in order to guard against the prosecutor using MLA to conduct a “fishing expedition”. In both instances Ny could experience difficulties. The chief prosecutor of Stockholm, Eva Finné, originally dismissed the case because: “The contents of the interrogation do not support a suspicion a crime has been committed.”
If a UK judicial authority came to agree with Finné, the case would collapse. The likelihood of this happening can be seen in Ny's EAW, which does not conform to the evidence in order to describe an extraditable offence. In a MLA request these differences would have to be repeated in an evidence summary sent to the UK Central Authority, and as Karin Rosander, the Swedish Prosecution Authority's Director of Communications states, a prosecutor's interpretation of evidence is “a matter of opinion”, but turning an evidence summary into opinion is a serious, potentially criminal matter. It is also possible that a MLA request (including the evidence summary) could be disclosed to the defence through an abuse process argument. If such an argument were successful, the least significant repercussion (for Ny) would be the case's collapse.
While a MLA request to question Assange in London was only ever going to create difficulties and the EAW has created its own problems - mainly an unexpected deadlock punctuated by ever increasing demands to use MLA to question Assange - was there a way to find new evidence, which would make a MLA request to question viable?
Under Sweden's International Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Act (2000:562) there is a provision for the “secret wire tapping and secret telecommunications surveillance of a person who is abroad”:
If secret wire tapping or secret telecommunications surveillance shall take place of a person who is in another state and the other state requires that the request first be considered by a court in Sweden, district court may on request of a Swedish prosecutor decide to allow secret wire tapping or secret telecommunications surveillance.
The Home Office MLA Guidelines for Authorities Outside of the United Kingdom states:
International requests for assistance in the interception of communications can only be made under Articles 17 to 22 of the Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters between Member States of the European Union 2000.
Articles 17 of the EU Convention states:
For the purpose of the application of the provisions of Articles 18, 19 and 20, "competent authority" shall mean a judicial authority, or, where judicial authorities have no competence in the area covered by those provisions, an equivalent competent authority, specified pursuant to Article 24(1)(e) and acting for the purpose of a criminal investigation.
With regards to the definition of a "competent authority" in such matters, the HO MLA Guidelines state that:
An interception warrant can only be authorised by the Secretary of State (in this case the Home Secretary) and for the purpose of preventing or detecting serious crime.
On the likelihood of a MLA surveillance request being granted, the Crown Prosecution Service's (CPS) Legal Guidance states:
In practice, refusal [of a MLA request] is rare and is most likely to occur simply because the request cannot be executed at all, perhaps due to insufficient information to establish the whereabouts of the evidence or a witness.
However, prosecutors must remember that practical issues including costs and the availability of resources may affect how, if at all, a request can be undertaken.
The prospect that prosecutor Ny is spying on Assange rather than questioning him, and that UK citizens are having to pay for an open-ended “fishing expedition” is appalling. The fact that, in MLA surveillance requests, the non-political 'judicial authority' (which acts to guard against a “fishing expedition”) has been replaced by a 'competent authority' that just happens to be the Home Secretary (Theresa May), is equally concerning.
May's impartiality towards national security focused journalism, and therefore towards WikiLeaks and Assange is questionable. The detention of David Miranda (the partner of journalist Glen Greenwald) at Heathrow Airport under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 was unofficially sanctioned by May, in circumstances that saw the White House briefed on Miranda's expected arrival in the UK. A Home Office statement labelled opposition to the use of schedule 7 on journalists as 'condoning terrorism'.
If May considers reporting on the criminal activity of the NSA and GCHQ to be 'terrorism', it is logical that she would view the journalism of WikiLeaks in a similar light. Indeed, the WikiLeaks section editor, Sarah Harrison, has been advised not to return to the UK (after assisting NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to secure asylum) because of the dangers of schedule 7 and the draconian attitude of the Home Office.
During the Stockholm District Court hearing into whether to lift Assange's four-year detention order, several indications of a surveillance “fishing expedition” surfaced. The well-known politician Claes Borgström (currently acting as a lawyer for one of the complainants) has claimed that prosecutor Ny is illegally withholding "secret" evidence from the defence; and Ny's wish to hide evidence (16 July defence and prosecution evidence was withheld from the public at her behest) until Assange's trail (a trial that would be almost entirely held in secret) has been seen to be based on nonsensical arguments that include: mistaking asylum for custody, and viewing disclosure of material critical to the defence as irrelevant because non-critical material has been disclosed. One explanation for these arguments is that the disclosure of evidence damaging to the prosecution's case would further erode public support. Clearly, if surveillance evidence emerged, the repercussions in Sweden and the UK would be significant.
Besides surveillance, the appearance of, or signs that the investigation had be influenced by evidence obtained through the disappearance of Assange's laptops (September 2010), which contained “privileged attorney-client communications”; or through the FBI's long-running attempt to entrap Assange, which involved Sigurdur Thordarson (a part-time WikiLeaks volunteer) using a recording device, making copies of data and handing stolen materials to the FBI in exchange for $5,000, would prove highly damaging to the prosecution. When Assange's defence team asks to see the prosecution's evidence in order to (amongst other things) eliminate such concerns, and the answer is no, with no clear reasoning provided, all that remains is a suspicion of a cover-up.
The fact that DPG operations at the embassy have effectively become classified under NS is also an indication that a MLA surveillance request is under way. Home Office MLA Guidelines state:
Before authorising a request the Secretary of State may impose restrictions which would prevent disclosure, in any proceedings outside of the United Kingdom, of intercept product which could not be adduced (cited as evidence) in the United Kingdom. The Secretary of State must be satisfied that restrictions are in force which would prevent disclosure of, in any proceedings outside of the United Kingdom, intercept product which could not be adduced in the United Kingdom (i.e. it can only be used for intelligence purposes).
July 21, 2014
This means that surveillance material deemed relevant to the EAW charges can be sent to Sweden and the Home Office is free to retain the “intelligence” material. If this material was then made available to MI5 (as part of a UK-based investigation into WikiLeaks) the MLA surveillance operation would fall under the auspices of NS. There is no other reasonable explanation for either the NS designation or for the unaccounted costs of the operation, except within the Home Office's tendency to equate journalism with terrorism. It goes without saying that MI5 would share embassy intelligence with the FBI's "criminal/national security investigation" of WikiLeaks.
In the FOIA request, the DPG attempts to explain away the use of NS in terms of embassy security. However, the FOIA is clearly not asking about embassy security, it is solely concerned with the “cost of standing outside a building to prevent a single man leaving.” The DPG's failure to explain the NS aspect of a EAW (based on allegations of sexual misconduct) is similar to Marianne Ny's failure to explain her non-disclosure of evidence. And as with Ny, this failure has created a suspicion of cover-up.
Without any doubt, Ny, Theresa May and the DPG must be urgently questioned about these issues. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and the Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Keith Vaz, have already questioned the extraordinary expense of the embassy police operation. It is now past time for the London Assembly and Home Affairs Select Committee to get to the bottom of the origins of this expense.