Belfast Telegraph

Lessons of Watergate have fallen by the digital wayside

Editor's Viewpoint

Gonzalez, Barker, McCord, Martinez and Sturgis. Know who they are? These are the five men who, on June 17, 1972, were arrested inside the offices of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington DC.

The opening episode of the Watergate scandal had just kicked off and the cover-up that followed eventually brought down Richard Nixon and saw dozens of his closest senior officials go to jail.

There was more to Watergate than just a botched burglary. Gonzalez and his fellow burglars were also convicted of the attempted interception of telephone and other communications.

And, when prosecutors looked deeper, Nixon had form. Three years before Watergate, Nixon ordered the FBI to listen in to the telephone calls of five political reporters regarded as "enemies" of the White House. Through this morality play, America learned that, without relentless scrutiny, governments misbehave. However, it was an analogue scandal.

In this digital, internet age, David Cameron, or Barack Obama, no longer need the archaic crudity of a burglary, or a wire-tap. Data collection technology has outrun the law and an urgent review of legal rights is badly needed.

The ability of agencies like GCHQ and the NSA to bypass warrants and executive authorisation means that the claim by Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporter who helped expose Watergate, that the scandal "showed the system worked", because the US judiciary and Congress ultimately did their job, now looks like misplaced faith.

Nixon targeted his "enemies" and broke the law. But what law would be broken, for example, if Downing Street wanted a serious "look" at those it regarded as posing a threat to the UK? The answer is disturbing.

Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, could be described as a threat to the UK's economic relationship with the European Union. But, if GCHQ gathered a dossier on Ukip's plans for the next general election, while there might be moral questions over the action, there would be nothing illegal about the process.

Nixon famously regarded some in the White House Press corp as "enemies" of his presidency and used the FBI to find out what they were thinking. If David Cameron feels the same, what would No 10's lawyers advise?

Last year, I helped to break the story that the prime minister had withheld a series of private e-mails from the Leveson Inquiry. The content of the e-mails was potentially damaging for David Cameron.

Downing Street initially dismissed their existence, but then subsequently refused to discuss the legal advice that had been given to keep them private. No 10 remains silent on the subject.

There was also fear among the 'insiders' who had helped deliver this story that, if the newspaper published further detail on the e-mails, they would suffer serious reprisals.

Bob Woodward is on record as saying that, although Nixon waged an aggressive war with history after his resignation, "happily history won". I'm no longer sure that this is the case.

For Watergate to remain Woodward's – and everyone else's – victory, there has to be a robust legal framework, offering well-defined protection, that at least resembles a substantial threat to those who believe a citizen's privacy is not a legitimate right. Accelerating technology seems to have eroded that right.

Unless the law in this field is urgently reviewed, a new generation of Watergates will be happening – all of them beneath the radar of public accountability.

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