This week’s exposé of the US National Security Agency has been heralded as the greatest intelligence leak since the Pentagon Papers. It is nothing of the sort. Far from revealing some institutional outrage, the whistleblower Edward Snowden merely appears to have found what any low-level intelligence source might find. Intelligence agencies try to find things out about certain people. Spies spy, and can be innovative in their techniques. Rapid technological advances mean that the amount of snooping is growing at a faster rate than laws and regulations have been able keep up. But where is the scandal?
The most specific allegation from Mr Snowden — made from his sanctuary in the People’s Republic of China — is that the American and UK governments have been using a reciprocal arrangement to get around certain domestic laws on spying. They snoop on each other’s citizens because they can’t snoop on their own, and then swap notes. Even if true, this has not proven to be a matter of any great concern for the general public. Opinion polls on both sides of the Atlantic suggest that people are not particularly bothered. People appear to recognise that the security agencies must exercise unique powers to intercept and thwart people who wish to harm us.
The same is not true for the taxman, who would quite like some of these powers for himself. The government’s ‘snooper’s charter’ is an attempt to give any government department, even town halls, various degrees of power to pry in the name of ‘national security’. In reality, MI5 and MI6 already have powers to intercept anything categorised as a ‘communication’. Permission is needed — but it is sought and granted. It is wrong for MI5 or the CIA to engage in a ruse to cut out the paperwork. But let us not pretend this makes either into a 21st-century Stasi.
When asked if the government should be given snooping powers, people are more hostile — and with reason. Spies are quite good at keeping secrets; governments are not. The British government has already shown itself capable of losing the personal bank details of millions of benefit claimants by misplacing computer disks. And what might happen if information relating to people’s medical records were leaked to a government employer or a health insurance company? Even if there is no bad intent, incompetence is always a factor that needs to be considered. Information that has been gathered with the best of intentions can be left lying about for those with the worst.
The proposed snooping bill represents a more appropriate object of outrage than anything the newspapers have been disclosing in recent days. As the Chief Rabbi says on page 22, religious fundamentalism poses one of the greatest threats to our civilisation. One of the most remarkable successes of recent years has been the way in which western intelligence agencies have adapted to this threat, and infiltrated even low-level plots. Since 9/11, more than 40 serious plots have been averted in Britain. There is always a balance to be struck between liberty and security, but in Britain the balance seems to be about right.
At the heart of this week’s row over spying is a straightforward divide. It is between those who regard the existence of a security apparatus as a scandal needing to be exposed, and a larger number of people who believe that for the state to run properly it must have — and collect — secrets.
Benefits of hindsight
In the basement of The Spectator’s offices in 22 Old Queen Street is one of the greatest literary treasures in Britain: every issue of the magazine dating back to 1828. Now we have put the archive online and this week we opened it to the world — at archive.spectator.co.uk — and it has already caused some uproar.
Boris Johnson’s candid piece on single fathers, written two decades ago, has been gleefully unearthed by his enemies. We have been castigated for a 1974 piece denouncing the computer industry as a scam. And some readers have been shocked to learn that in 1853 we trashed Dickens. To those who enjoy being outraged by offences against conventional wisdom, The Spectator archive is a goldmine. Often, however, the magazine’s contrarian instincts are vindicated. During the American Civil War, we were almost alone in supporting the North against the slave-owning South. We backed the decriminalisation of homosexuality a decade before the legislation. We alone supported Margaret Thatcher when she first stood for the party’s leadership. We alone opposed Britain’s disastrous entry into the Exchange Rate Mechanism.
Since 1828, this magazine has been committed to original thought, elegant expression and independent opinion. The result is an 185-year archive of the most entertaining writing in the English language.