In light of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden leaks, will the Secret Services change the way they operate?

Modern day spies may have qualities more akin to reporters than that of the paradigm of the cinematic agent, James Bond.  Spies deal, after all, in information that will be useful to their bosses and they build up social networks in order to gain this information.  These networks include friends and acquaintances who have been persuaded to pass on useful information perhaps for a financial reward, or perhaps because they believe it in the public interest.  Possibly they may have been persuaded to pass their information after being subject to a little blackmail – nothing too ugly but just sufficient to persuade a hesitant informer.  All in a day’s work for both the reporter and the professional spy, and both are inclined to justify their work in terms of working in the national interest.

However, there are some differences: reporters protect their sources and disclose their findings while spies are reluctant and positively avoid disclosing sources or findings to the public.  This approach has made the public nervous of late, raising questions as to whether everything spies do is justified.  The issue over information gained through the use of torture by 3rd parties is just such an issue that the public has too little information about to make up its own mind.  The publications from Julian Assange and Edward Snowden have provided material to better inform the public about what information the intelligence services collect. With greater expectations for transparency and demands for accountability for all systems of governance, what does this mean for security agencies reliant on classified information?  Are we coming back to the age-old debate of who polices the police or checks the Cheka?

So, when the spy chiefs of GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 reported to the Parliamentary Committee for the first time in a public forum, there was speculation that something had changed in the spy business.  But as the dust settles on the briefing folders of our spy chiefs, it is time to consider how, or if, anything will change?

The Use of Spies

Spies have been around for a long time. Alexander the Great used them, as have most, if not all, military leaders.   In the military context, spies have been used to find out the strengths and weaknesses of opposing armies, or to persuade tribes to support one or another side; these seem acceptable pastimes for spy folk. However, given the shadowy world that spies operate in their activity is, and will remain controversial.  Espionage, fake identities and betrayal have become firmly associated with this trade over the course of history.  Since before Tarpeia betrayed Rome for the gold bracelets worn by the Sabines, treason has never been well received in any state.  The thought that someone (a fifth columnist, a red under the bed, a terrorist) might betray the society they live in has always made the public nervous.  Governments have sought to allay this concern but have they only ‘set a thief to catch a thief’ or more pertinently, set a spy to catch a spy.  Or are our spies honourable individuals possessing boundless amounts of integrity that ensure that the public would be in agreement with any of the actions?

 At present, spies either collect information that helps this country’s national interests or they counter the efforts of other nations’ spies that would harm the national interests.  But who tells the intelligence community what is the national interest?  It is clearly a challenge to identify any course of action that stands the long-term test of being in the national interest.  No one wishes to have another 9/11 or 7/7.  But what is the Government’s strategy to prevent such a reoccurrence?  The terrorist activities of the Provisional IRA were resolved, not by listening to everyone’s telephone calls but by resolving the issues that created conflict in Northern Ireland.  Whether the intelligence services agreed with this strategy or not is irrelevant, it was decided by the Government of the day, elected and accountable to the public.  But politicians can get it wrong too.  For example, did Tony Blair use his public popularity and the ‘force of personality’ to persuade the nation to support a second war against Iraq in 2003?  Voices from that date and since have struggled to demonstrate the ‘national interest’ that that campaign supported.  Consequently, it is difficult to determine who we trust in identifying national interest whether in the short or long term.

The Future

The future is likely to see the world a more complicated place than today with continued globalisation blurring the boundaries between police work and spying.  Preventing nuclear proliferation, or the use of WMD are clearly worthy causes for spies; preventing money laundering by drug barons perhaps seems more like police work albeit both benefit from the ability to access conversations and messages throughout the world.  And while the public may accept the need for email intercepts when they help identify a group of active terrorists, they will increasingly expect a level of assurance that their privacy has not been invaded unnecessarily.  The revelations from Edward Snowden have raised the question of proportionality; can the security services justify monitoring everybody to identify a few targets of the spies. At one time phone tapping required a legal sanction before it was permitted.  Perhaps the time is coming for some form of ombudsman to monitor the intelligence services surveillance targets and reassure the public that their interests are been served by those working in their name?

“Who watches the watchmen?

 The presence of the three spy chiefs answering questions in public to the Parliamentary Committee for Intelligence and Security perhaps indicates that it is the intelligence community who have, subtly, opened the debate about change.  They said little that was new or unexpected, but their presence, in a public forum, placed the issue of personal privacy in the public domain.  The intelligence services wish their activities and information to remain covert and they argue that anything less than complete secrecy compromises their activities to safeguard our interests.  If we agree with this, the lack of public outcry will be tantamount to sanctioning this position.  Conversely, if we feel there should be safeguards in place to ensure there is accountability and responsibility of the intelligence community to its employers, then does greater pressure need to be applied through government to the Security Services?

The intelligence community has focussed the arguments about their activities on preventing terrorism.  It is an emotive focus; MI5 stated that 34 terrorist plots have been disrupted in the UK since 7 July 2005, presumably by use of covert interception of email and phone conversations (under the GCHQ Tempora programme) But preventing terrorism is only a part of work that the security services prosecute.  Would the public be as happy to surrender their rights to privacy for objectives other than the prevention of terrorism?  It is, surely, for the public to have their say but achieving an informed debate may be a challenge.