Alphen, Netherlands. 20 January. President Obama said Friday that, “People around the world should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security”. The reforms Obama has ordered of the National Security Agency and its practices come as Edward Snowden released details of the Dishfire programme and the collection by the US of some 200 million text messages daily. Civil rights groups say that Obama’s reforms go nothing like far enough to protect privacy. Any yet full disclosure would effectively wreck the national security strategies not just of the US but the UK and other Western democracies. Is a new balance possible between strategy, politics, privacy and intelligence?
The essential dilemma that Snowden has highlighted is the enormous gulf in the world views of those responsible for national security and those not. Just before Christmas I had a conversation with a senior British officer with responsibility for signals intelligence. He told me that Britain was under daily “massive and rapacious” cyber-attack from Chinese, Russian and other intelligence agencies in addition to the very real terrorist threat.
Contrast that perspective with the world-view of Snowden and his supporters such as Julian Assange and Glenn Greenwald. They appear to live in a virtual world of perfect civil liberties and much like 1960s hippies and ‘free love’ they want information to be unbounded. They are part of Generation X that was spawned by the borderless-ness of the Internet and information idealism and any power that constrains information anarchy is an enemy.
That is not to say Western-states do not have a very real duty of care for the privacy of citizens both their own and others. And, it could well be that the NSA and its British counterpart GCHQ crossed privacy thresholds in pursuit of security. 911, the pressing intelligence needs of the Afghan and Iraq wars and the march of technology brought motive, opportunity and capability together. Proper and legitimate oversight of such power is what distinguishes between democracies and non-democracies.
The politics of Obama’s speech reflect transatlantic tensions over strategy and politics. To hear the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel say on Friday that Germans were “rightfully concerned” by American and British intelligence practices is a bit rich to say the least. First, German intelligence and its French and other European counterparts benefit hugely from the data gathering of the NSA and GCHQ. Second, German and French intelligence in particular are excellent practitioners of what the information anarchists regard as dark arts.
The smell of hypocrisy is emerging from Berlin and not for the first time. It was particularly irritating recently to see German politicians affecting mock outrage that Britain was trying to discover Berlin’s policy intentions. As a British citizen I would be outraged if Britain was not trying to discern German intentions by all possible means. Germany is Europe’s most powerful state and the decisions it takes on the future of the EU have the most profound strategic implications for Britain. Even this weekend the new German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned David Cameron that some of his views on the EU were beginning to “affect German interests”.
There is a very real danger that British Intelligence will be most damaged. London is trapped between an America engaged in a dark real world and a European political elite obsessed only with the European order.
At root the cause of this seemingly endless controversy is the refusal of elites in many Western democracies to be honest about the dangerous nature of the twenty-first century world. The West failure in Afghanistan and Iraq has much to do with strategic dissonance between the US and its European allies. Whilst the US was on a war-footing much of Europe was determinedly not. Transatlantic strategic dissonance is reinforced by a European elite culture particularly that tries to lock the citizen into a false sense of security. This state is most apparent in relation to the Eurozone crisis but it extends across the security spectrum.
Therefore, by creating false security the individual citizen is left in a child-like state led to believe that his or her freedoms are like the air that they breathe. The thousands of men and women working in intelligence across the West walk daily past their fellow citizens to and fro work but might as well be on a different planet. The world they engage on behalf of their citizens is massively different from that perceived by ordinary people and dangerously and ideologically different from the world of information anarchists such as Assange, Greenwald and Snowden.
The greatest immediate threat to the cohesion of the West is breakdown in the balance between strategy, politics, privacy and intelligence. Indeed, without agreement over a new balance and soon the West as security actor will cease to exist.