December 11, 2013
The spies who came into the heat
For the Herald
Britain and the exposure of its espionage
THE HAGUE — German Chancellor Angela Merkel, so we are told, is “livid” at the news that someone had been sneaking into her smart phone. A number of US ambassadors have traipsed to the foreign ministries of the European countries in which they are based to face official rebukes. Brazil has cancelled a state visit to Washington. But for the country which appears to have served as nerve centre and technological vanguard to the trawling of worldwide communications, there has, until this week, been little more than mumbling and sneering and a swatting of flies by Prime Minister David Cameron.
Through Cameron, of course, flows the same British blood as fictional heroes such as James Bond and George Smiley; or perhaps more pertinently, real-life arch-traitors like Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt. His land is steeped in the mystique of espionage. Its favourite children’s author, Roald Dahl, served in the ranks of MI6 with efficiency. Its foundational contribution to the IT revolution, the computer built by Alan Turing and colleagues in Manchester in 1940s, was indirectly aided by one of the greatest spying enterprises ever — Bletchley Park, a wartime avatar of Silicon Valley but with more moral purpose and fewer stock options.
So some degree of understanding can arguably be extended to Cameron when he stood before the press in Brussels a little over a week ago to pour his scorn on the revelations that have flowed from Edward Snowden’s dissidence. Over the course of several hours prior to the press briefing, he had been sitting in a room with other European leaders, and by Merkel’s account, had “silently acquiesced” in a declaration that was critical of US spying and its effect on transatlantic relations.
This level of forbearance on his part, a lesson he may have learned from his experience with Nicolas Sarkozy’s cold eyeballs at one euro crisis summit in 2011, could not withstand so much silence. In any case, Brussels is notorious in bringing out the querulous Brit in Cameron and his Tory colleagues: “The point is what Snowden is doing and to an extent what the newspapers are doing in helping him do what he is doing, is frankly signalling to people who mean to do us harm how to evade and avoid intelligence and surveillance and other techniques,” Cameron opined. “The first priority of a prime minister is to help try and keep your country safe. That means not having some lah-di-dah, airy-fairy view about what this all means.”
Frustrated he may have been, but the lah-di-dah bit might haunt the prime minister for days and years to come. For it is one thing to recognize the huge public value of spies who follow suspects, track their activities, penetrate their networks; intelligence and informers brought a swifter end to the conflict in Northern Ireland, and it will do the same to Islamist radicalism. It is categorically different, however, to sit back with the software whirring and listen in to whichever world leader or household cleaner one takes a fancy to. The latter is to the former roughly what a couch potato is to a long-distance runner, or what Justin Bieber’s Twitter feed is to Ulysses. Or what drone warfare is to combat in the field.
This is what makes it so interesting to listen to the words of Britain’s three most senior spying chiefs, who are due this week to give testimony before Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. With a slight time delay in the public broadcast so that any information sensitive to national security can be choked off, the heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, the communication monitoring station which is said by Snowden to control the omniscient fibre-optic data catcher known as Tempora, will have the opportunity to defend what has become of espionage in the information age.
The list of pertinent questions that could be in principle be aimed at the trio is long. Who precisely gave the go-ahead? What level of control is exerted over who and what is intercepted? What ethical standards are followed, if any? Expectations of advanced moral philosophy from the intelligent trinity may be a little misplaced, however. What would really be worth knowing now, ahead of an era in which our data footsteps will become elephantine, is how much this inordinately sophisticated software actually achieved.
For aside from the contested issue of privacy — always difficult to pin down, continually under threat from moods of national emergency of the sort Cameron likes to invoke — the most practical question must revolve around whether any information of any use to anyone actually emerged from plugging into these digital oceans. Was a concrete terrorist attack averted through the work of spy-clerks mining data or chasing up keywords? Or was it simply that intelligence already knew who the suspect was, and just wanted to listen to their every word? If the latter is the case, then what other considerations apart from national security might have entered into the race to monitor pretty much everything?
The one question which no one has yet answered with any degree of conviction — for reasons of national security, naturellement — is what these programmes achieved. It is conceivable we will learn more from this week’s inquiry. But the supposition from Snowden’s evidence so far would probably be as follows: in terms of counter-terrorism, very little; in terms of keeping tabs on the thoughts and friendships of other leaders as well as an emergency lever for mass social control, a very great deal.