Friday, 11 October 2013

Protecting citizens against the threats of feckless Liberals

‘The Guardian has handed a gift to terrorists,’ proclaimed the Daily Mail this week.

The Mail gets the knife into the Guardian

I read recently that it’s deeply unfair – lazy history, in fact – to point out that the Mail was the paper that supported the Nazis in the thirties, so I shan’t mention it here. Let me instead say that the Mail tends not to be on the side of the little man, but prefers to throw its lot in with the great, the powerful and the wealthy, all three usually much the same thing.

The Guardian, on the other hand, tends towards a kind of wet liberalism with which I also like to identify. So the Mail wasn’t so much turning on one of its own, as pursuing its long vendetta with a publication it anathematises.

In this instance, it was referring to comments made by Andrew Parker, head of the British security service MI5, about publication of Edward Snowden’s revelations of the way the NSA in the States and GCHQ in Britain snoop on pretty much the whole population.

‘Such information hands the advantage to the terrorists,’ Parker intoned. ‘It is the gift they need to evade us and strike at will.’

The controversy keeps rumbling on. David Cameron, for instance, has come out in support of the Mail and castigated the Guardian. And the accusation is serious, suggesting that the revelations lay us open to attack by some of the most fearsome, and hateful, people out there.

Not everyone agrees with Parker, though. As the Guardian informed us, Nigel Inkster, former director of operations and intelligence at the counter-intelligence agency MI6, believes that ‘those most interested in the activities of the NSA and GCHQ have not been told much they didn’t already know or could have inferred.’

Well, quite. It’s emerged that Osama bin Laden simply had no telephone or internet connection in the house where he lived, and was eventually killed, in Abbotabad in Pakistan. Serious terrorists know they need to keep well away from phones and e-mail if they want to stay safe.

Not that it kept Bin Laden safe.

It seems it’s the rest of us that the spooks want to keep in the dark about the extent of their spying. Perhaps because they feel a little embarrassed to admit how much they’ve been sneaking into the private affairs of the very citizens they’re charged with protecting. Perhaps because they know just how dangerous that kind of behaviour is.

Why is it dangerous? Well, I don’t believe the current British government, however vile it is, really wants to use intelligence obtained by clandestine means to crush opposition or hang on to office. Nor do I think that the current intelligence chiefs are motivated by anything other than the sincere commitment they proclaim, to defeat terrorists and any other enemies that threaten us.

But what if we found ourselves with a different government and a different set of espiocrats running the spy establishment?

After all, there’s been a lot of talk recently about the winter olympics in Sochi, in Russia. It looks as though they are going to be the most heavily monitored games in history. Russian intelligence organisations will be reading e-mails, listening to phone calls, checking on internet traffic, of competitors, spectators and journalists alike.

’s Russia has recently taken a further lurch into homophobia. A tightening set of restrictions are being placed on its gay community. It’s a safe bet that one use of all this surveillance is going to be against anyone trying to resist this shameful trend. 

That’s when this level of spying becomes extremely disagreeable. But, some will say, it couldn’t happen in the West. Could it?

We’ve recently seen a big upsurge of support in Britain for the so-called United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP. It’s one of those classic protest movements which is defined above all by being anti: anti-immigrant, anti-liberal, anti-European Union. And, in particular, anti-gay: it has opposed government moves to legalise same-sex marriage, for instance. It is hardly inconceivable that, despite the resistance many of us will put up, UKIP might find itself in the not very distant future at least able to influence power, perhaps even as a coalition partner in government.

Now imagine a UKIP minister – and still worse a UKIP Home Secretary – turning to an intelligence service under his authority and asking it for information about gay activists. The spooks might refuse, but they could be replaced. And with the lack of legal oversight revealed by Snowden, how would we even know whether they’d refused or not?

Besides which, in an atmosphere in which certain people had come to regard gays as a threat, as they apparently have in Russia, wouldn’t the spies feel it was their duty to report on them?

And here’s another scenario which is at least as insidious.

Britain is a country run by wealthy people who know and support each other. Imagine a minister about to be exposed for abusing his office by a journalist who is, perhaps, not entirely without blemish himself – maybe he’s having an adulterous affair. The minister picks up the phone to his old friend, perhaps someone he was at school with, in the upper reaches of one of the intelligence organisations.

Without oversight or proper legal control, who can say with certainty that the friend won’t get the information the politician wants and leak it? Perhaps not to the Minister, but to a pliant organ of the press. Then the journalist is discredited, his career perhaps wrecked, over a matter irrelevant to his work, while a bent Minister is spared the exposure he so richly deserves – and which we so badly needed for our protection.

A gift to terrorists? By publishing the Snowden material, the Guardian has made a gift to ordinary citizens, increasingly vulnerable to bad behaviour by government supported by the spooks.

If the Mail‘s so upset, that only shows how quickly the establishment closes ranks against any move that champions the citizen against the powerful.


Awoogamuffin said...

This issue is so complicated it makes my head hurt. On the one hand, the government obviously has the right to have secrets; I'd far rather they combated terrorism through intelligence than bombs, but setting up an intelligence infrastructure that could easily be used to squelch individual freedom seems too great a price to pay.

I hope we figure out the right compromise between allowing our spooks to do their jobs without undermining civilians' liberty.

David Beeson said...

Amen to that. Both objectives are vital; finding the balance between them is, I think, going to be the great issue of this half century.