The “war on terror” has been a boon to the British intelligence services. After decades in which they became notorious for “counter-subversion” operations against political activists and trade unionists, colluding with death squads in Northern Ireland and helping the US to overthrow elected governments around the world, the spooks have at last had a chance to play the good guys.
Instead of the seedy antidemocratic gang that plotted against a Labour prime minister, they can claim to be the first line of defense against indiscriminate attacks on the streets of Britain.
MI5 has well over doubled in size in the past 10 years. Glamorized beyond parody in TV dramas such as Spooks, the spying agencies’ uncheckable pronouncements about their exploits and supposed triumphs are routinely relayed by the media as fact. The same has been true in the US, but on a far larger canvas.
So faced with the avalanche of leaks from the US National Security Agency (NSA) and British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) about the epic scale of their blanket electronic surveillance, both at home and abroad, the masters of Anglo-US espionage have played the “national security” card for all it is worth.
The revelations of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in the Guardian have been a “gift” to terrorists, MI5 Director-General Andrew Parker claimed, eagerly supported by the British prime minister.
The leaks were the “most catastrophic loss to British intelligence ever,” former GCHQ director David Omand said.
They were cheered on by the trusties of the British press — a fertile recruiting ground for British intelligence and the CIA over many years. National security has been imperiled, they all warned, as Tory demands for the Guardian to be prosecuted have grown.
In reality, national security is a catchphrase so elastic as to be meaningless. As MI5 helpfully explains, government policy is “not to define the term, in order to retain the flexibility ... to adapt to changing circumstances” — in other words, political expediency.
If it simply meant protecting citizens from bombs on buses and trains, of course, most people would sign up for that.
However, as the Snowden leaks have moved from capability to content, it has been driven home that much of what NSA and GCHQ are up to has nothing to do with terrorism or security at all, but, as might be expected, the exercise of naked state power to gain political and economic advantage.
In the past few days the French have discovered — courtesy of Le Monde — that the NSA harvested 70 million digital communications in France in one month, while the Mexicans have learned — via Der Spiegel — that their president’s e-mails were hacked into by US intelligence to “plan international investments” and strengthen US diplomatic leverage.
Something similar happened to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, just as world leaders were targeted at the G20, while India and Germany were among other countries treated to the full electronic harvest treatment. Terrorism was clearly well down the priority list.
The protests of the French and other Western governments, which of course have their own, less effective espionage capability and collude with the US across the board, are largely for public consumption.
France was among several European states that cravenly bowed to US pressure to force Bolivian President Evo Morales’ aircraft to land this summer, in a hamfisted attempt to kidnap the whistleblower Snowden.