Homeland Security

David Anderson on British Legislative Developments

By Benjamin Wittes
Thursday, July 5, 2012, 10:25 AM

The other day, David Anderson, the U.K.’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, dropped by Brookings to talk with me about legislative proposals in Britain for a Closed Material Proceeding in civil litigation that involves intelligence activities. Anderson’s office has no parallel in American national security law. It has certain statutory monitoring functions regarding the implementation of existing terrorism laws. But the independent reviewer also functions as a commentator on pending legislation—serving as a kind of honest broker and trusted voice for Parliament and its committees.

One interesting feature of the institution is that the independent reviewer is not—like, say, the GAO or agency inspectors general, a group of government employees. It is just one outside guy paid on a contractor basis to provide independent advice and analysis. As Anderson’s web site puts it:

The Independent Reviewer has no staff and no salary. The post is part-time and not pensionable. The Reviewer is paid for his time at a standard daily rate, and may also claim for expenses reasonably incurred in carrying out the functions of the office. Those costs are met by the Home Office or, in relation to asset-freezing, the Treasury.

A room and some part-time administrative assistance is provided for the Independent Reviewer within the Home Office. The room is used on an occasional basis for meetings and for the review and storage of secret material. The Reviewer also travels widely within and outside the United Kingdom, in order to gather evidence and for discussions and conferences. However he remains based in his own office in central London, and cultivates a range of contacts without reference to the Government.

The more I think about this arrangement, the more I think we might be able to learn something from it. American counterterrorism law and operations are too far-flung to have one person playing as wide-ranging a role as Anderson is playing in the U.K., but it might not be a crazy thing to have statutorily-created outside commentators read into politically sensitive programs to provide a public reality check—and therefore legitimacy—to both ongoing activity and controversial legislative proposals. That’s, of course, what congressional oversight is supposed to do, but there’s something valuable too about the model of one independent-minded person with no authority except the independent authority to comment, who has access to classified information, and who is compensated to make the rounds having serious conversations with a diverse group of people.

For a sample of Anderson’s recent work, take a look at his testimony on the pending closed material procedure bill before the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights—testimony. He also just released his latest report on the British terrorism laws.

I would be very interested in hearing from people familiar with British counterterrorism efforts and politics about how this institution has functioned over the years. Specifically, I’m interested in how seriously the work of the reviewer is taken by the political system and the press. Does it have an impact on the legitimacy afforded to controversial government actions? Or is it just noise?