Transatlantic discussions on "homeland security" shrouded in secrecy

In April 2003 the governments of the UK and the US set up a high-level Joint Contact Group to deal with "homeland security" issues such as biometric technology, information-sharing, counter-terrorism and law enforcement cooperation. Documents recently released by the UK Home Office shed some light on the current interests of the group, but the majority of the information requested by Statewatch has been withheld in the name of "national security".

The work of the US-UK Joint Contact Group (JCG) appears to be largely undertaken by UK officials from the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT, part of the Home Office), and US officials from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The limited information released by the OSCT shows that during its two meetings in 2014 the Joint Contact Group (JCG) focused on "foreign fighters", Syrian refugees, exit checks, AVSEC (presumably aviation security) and the UK's PREVENT programme. [1]

Officials also shared "threat briefings" and discussed issues related to the G6, collaboration on science and technology and the Ebola crisis.

Two agenda items have had their titles censored, and further detail on four agenda points - PREVENT, AVSEC, Syria/Iraq and foreign fighters and "joint Home Office/DHS business" - has also been kept secret.

The information released includes the names of the senior officials present at the meetings. For the UK:

  • Charles Farr, Director-General of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT, part of the Home Office);
  • Sir Charles Montgomery, Director General of Border Force;
  • Bernard Silverman, Chief Scientific Adviser, Home Office;
  • Mike Anderson, Director General of the Home's Office's International Directorate;
  • Jonathan Emmet, Director of Strategy, Planning and International at the OSCT;
  • Paul Lincoln, Director of the OSCT's National Security Directorate;
  • Phil Luxford, Director of the OSCT's Protect, Prepare and Counter-Terrorism Science section; and
  • Christophe Prince, Director of Prevent at the OSCT.

For the US:

  • R. Gil Kerilkowske, Commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection;
  • Rob Silvers, Senior Counselor to the Deputy Secretary;
  • Mark Koumans, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Affairs (DHS);
  • David Gersten, Countering Violent Extremism Coordinator (DHS);
  • Robert Paschall, DHS Attaché in London; and
  • Pat Barry, Counsellor to the Secretary for Counterterrorism and Intelligence (DHS).

The FOI request submitted by Statewatch asked for information dating back to 2009, but according to the response the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism does "not hold records for more than two years [data retention], and there were no meetings of the JCG in 2013".

Loose lips sink ships

The OSCT noted in its response to requests for the JCG's agendas that the group "is not a secret body… the issues discussed at the meetings in 2014 are of significant public interest," and "the broad agendas should be shared".

However, "some of the items discussed as well as some detailed headings under several of the items are highly sensitive," and thus the Home Office made use of Section 24(1) of the Freedom of Information Act. This allows the authorities to keep information secret if it relates to "safeguarding national security".

In the "public interest test" required by Section 24(1), the Home Office came down squarely on the side of secrecy:

"Providing information of this nature would render national security measures less effective by providing individuals who may pose a threat to national security with knowledge and insight. Anything that could allow individuals to counter measures that may be in place to safeguard national security is clearly not in the public interest."

Meanwhile, the request for the minutes of the group's meetings did not even merit a public interest test, with the response stating that the information requested fell under Section 23(1) of the Freedom of Information Act: "Information held by a public authority is exempt information if it was directly or indirectly supplied to the public authority by, or relates to, any of the bodies specified in subsection (3)." This includes MI5, MI6, GCHQ, and a whole host of other state bodies. [2]

As the response said: "Section 23(1) is an absolute provision and consequently there is no further consideration required."

Public information

Information available elsewhere demonstrates some of the other interests of the Joint Contact Group.

A July 2003 article in The Guardian said that one of the group's priorities is "closer working on the development of biometric technology such as iris and facial recognition". [3]

In May 2009 there were discussions on "terrorism and violent extremism" in the US and the UK. [4]

Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the US Senate in September 2009 that the JCG "in part [focuses] on countering violent extremism", [5], a subject that has in recent years also been discussed by the DHS and EU police agency Europol. [6] She also noted a US-Germany group called the "U.S.-Germany Security Contact Group (SCG)".

In May 2011 Mark Koumans of the DHS told the US Congress House Subcommittee on Foreign Affairs that the JCG and SCG have:

"[E]nabled DHS and our partners to exchange threat assessments, best practices on both the detection of violent extremism and on transportation security, information about terrorist travel trends, risk assessment methodologies, and emergency management best practices." [7]


Further reading

[1] 'Protecting the UK against terrorism',
[2] Section 23, Freedom of Information Act 2000
[3] Owen Boycott, 'Iris recognition - a new game of eye spy to speed the passenger's journey', The Guardian, 29 July 2003
[4] 'Statement by Secretary Napolitano on Deputy Secretary Lute’s Travel to London and Rome', US Department of Homeland Security, 28 May 2009
[5] 'Testimony of Secretary Napolitano before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, "Eight Years after 9/11: Confronting the Terrorist Threat to the Homeland" (Written Testimony)', US Department of Homeland Security, 30 September 2009
[6] Chris Jones, '"Call it intercontinental collaboration": radicalisationn, violent extremism and fusion centres', Statewatch Analysis, September 2014
[7] 'Statement of Mark Koumans, Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Affairs, before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia: "Overview of Security Issues in Europe and Eurasia"', US Department of Homeland Security, 4 May 2011

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