Sunday, 27 November 2011

When the spooks get it right...

Once again I’ve had the experience of having to reconsider some of my fondest convictions. This time I had my lesson from Eliza Manningham Buller, former head of the British security service, MI5, in one of her BBC Reith lectures this year.

Ex-spook chief with remarkable insights
The unease that comes from feeling personally targeted came when she referred to those sceptics who tended to see security and freedom as opposed, with her firmly on the side of the former. That was, I shamefacedly had to admit, certainly my position, to classify among those inclined to limit rather than to defend liberty.

Her view is that there is no contradiction between security and freedom. For her, MI5’s mission is to protect both. As she pointed out, twice to stress the point, the stated objective of the organisation is to defend parliamentary democracy.

Within this general framework she made two specific points that struck me particularly.

On the use of waterboarding by the United States, she said ‘torture is illegal in our national law and in international law. It is wrong and never justified.
Like quite a few opponents of the use of torture, I’ve tended to argue that it doesn’t generate good intelligence. She on the other hand believes that it sometimes does, but points out that the argument that lifesaving intelligence was sometime obtained by it, ‘and I accept it was, still does not justify it. Torture should be utterly rejected even when it may offer the prospect of saving lives. I am proud my Service refused to turn to the torture of high-level German prisoners in the Second World War, when, in the early years, we stood alone and there was a high risk of our being invaded and becoming a Nazi province. So if not then, why should it be justified now?’

It was chastening to listen to her. The argument over whether torture is effective or ineffective is irrelevant – it’s quite simply wrong. Turning to a utilitarian justification only weakens the moral argument, which is more than strong enough on its own.

As it happens, though, she comes out with something close to a utilitarian argument herself, almost as an afterthought.

I believe that the acquisition of short-term gain through water-boarding and other forms of mistreatment was a profound mistake and lost the United States moral authority and some of the widespread sympathy it had enjoyed as a result of 9/11. And I am confident that I know the answer to the question of whether torture has made the world a safer place. It hasn’t.

Giving up the moral high ground weakens us and attracts more recruits to the ranks of our enemies.

But Manningham-Buller made another point that struck me almost as strongly and much more personally. It concerned the rule of law. She declared:

The Security Service Act of 1989 was long overdue - the government of Mrs Thatcher was not, at first, convinced of its necessity - but its importance was critical. The Service’s experience of working on a proper legislative basis has been wholly positive. But even at that early stage in 1989 we knew its importance.

Like most people, I would have expected the spooks to do all in their power to resist legal oversight. So it was a bit of a surprise to find that Manningham-Buller was, on the contrary, only too pleased to have a proper legal framework for her work.

Funnily enough that chimed with a personal experience of my own, though not perhaps at quite her level.

My work involves using large quantities of healthcare information, often including confidential material about identified patients. Following a series of scandals some years ago – you know, the usual things: lost USB keys, stolen laptops, all the mundane disasters that can happen with unsecured data – regulations were so massively tightened that it became almost impossible to do my job.

Recently, though, good sense has prevailed. Regulations have been revised and intelligent procedures put in place. People have realised that there is no point in having a system so restrictive that it’s impossible to do the very things they regard not only as legitimate, but actually necessary for the sake of good healthcare.

For instance, a key thing when looking at how an individual case has gone is to be able to look at other cases for the same patient – but that means knowing who the patient is, which in turn means working with ‘patient identifiable data’, the very stuff the regulations had originally made inaccessible.

The problem's been met by setting ways of doing things that mean that, as long as we stick to rules about who can see what, how it needs to be handled, how long it is kept and so on. And, funnily enough, I find it surprisingly relaxing to work that way: I know that what I’m doing is within the rules, it isn’t going to expose me to any unpleasant consequences with the law, and at the same time it’s making sure that patient confidentiality is preserved. 

And since, in other conditions, I’m a patient myself, I’m really rather happy about that last point.

So it’s good to be able to say with Mannigham-Buller that my ‘experience of working on a proper legislative basis has been wholly positive’. I know what she means.

On the bigger points, though, about the morality and nature of a security service – well, I can’t claim to have anything like her insight – only, despite myself, to rather admire her point of view.

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