Underscoring "gross inadequacies" in the UK intelligence system, the group which oversees British spy services admitted on Wednesday that the government had targeted Amnesty International for surveillance and unlawfully misused its data—a startling turnaround of a ruling made just 10 days earlier, in which the tribunal declared that Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) had not spied on the world's largest human rights organization.
On June 22, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) ruled that two international NGOs, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and the Legal Resources Center in South Africa, had been subjected to illegal surveillance by the GCHQ.
But its announcement on Wednesday reveals that it had misidentified (pdf) Amnesty for EIPR. IPT president Michael Burton informed the human rights group of the transgression by email, which he called an "error."
However, the IPT also stated that GCHQ had not violated any laws in spying on the human rights group—only that it had exceeded the time limit on retaining the communications data it intercepted.
"The Tribunal made the finding that there had been a breach by virtue of the exceeding of time limits for retention (and which have now been delivered to the Commissioner for safekeeping, insofar as not destroyed) in fact related to Amnesty International Ltd... and not the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights," he wrote.
Amnesty's secretary general, Salil Shetty, had a different word for the revelations: "outrageous."
"After 18 months of litigation and all the denials and subterfuge that entailed, we now have confirmation that we were in fact subjected to UK government mass surveillance," Shetty said on Wednesday. "It’s outrageous that what has been often presented as being the domain of despotic rulers has been occurring on British soil, by the British government."
"How can we be expected to carry out our crucial work around the world if human rights defenders and victims of abuses can now credibly believe their confidential correspondence with us is likely to end up in the hands of governments?" Shetty continued.
The IPT's ruling also made no mention of when the surveillance operation took place.
"The revelation that the UK government has been spying on Amnesty International highlights the gross inadequacies in the UK’s surveillance legislation," Shetty said. "If they hadn’t stored our communications for longer than they were allowed to by internal guidelines, we would never even have known. What’s worse, this would have been considered perfectly lawful."
Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty's deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, spoke with The Intercept about the IPT's mistake on Wednesday, stating, "Of course they sat on it for ten days."
"Most important to us is that privacy matters. Privacy matters to us. It's harmed the trust that human rights defenders have in us," van Gulik said. "This has gone too far."
Amnesty's outrage was echoed in comments from all corners of the human rights and privacy sectors.
"Today's farcical developments place into sharp relief the obvious problems with secret tribunals where only one side gets to see, and challenge, the evidence," said Eric King, deputy director of the London-based rights group Privacy International. "Five experienced judges inspected the secret evidence, seemingly didn’t understand it, and wrote a judgment that turned out to be untrue. We need to know why and how this happened."
"Any confidence that our current oversight could keep GCHQ in check has evaporated. Only radical reforms will ensure this never happens again," King said.
The IPT ruling regarded a suit filed by Amnesty and nine other nongovernmental organizations against unlawful surveillance by UK agencies.
"This shows the urgent need for significant legal reform, including proper pre-judicial authorization and meaningful oversight of the use of surveillance powers by the UK security services, and an independent inquiry into how and why a UK intelligence agency has been spying on human rights organizations," Amnesty said.