What a relief. It is, after all, possible to discuss the operations of modern intelligence agencies without having to prove one’s patriotism, be turned over by the police, summoned by politicians or visited by state-employed technicians with instructions to smash up one’s computers.
The 300-page report into the Guardian’s revelations about the US National Security Agency (NSA) commissioned by US President Barack Obama and published this week is wide-ranging, informed and thoughtful. It leaps beyond the timid privacy-versus-national security platitudes which have stifled so much of the debate in the UK. It does not blame journalism for dragging the subject into the open — it celebrates it.
The five authors of the report are not hand-wringing liberals. They number one former CIA deputy director; a counter-terrorism adviser to former US president George W. Bush and his father; two former White House advisers; and a former dean of the Chicago law school. Not what the prime minister would call “airy-fairy, lah-di-dah” types.
Six months ago, British Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood was in the Guardian’s London office telling us there had been “enough” debate on the matter of what intelligence agencies got up to, but here are Obama’s experts reveling in the debate — exploring the tensions between privacy and national security, yes, but going much further, discussing cryptology; civil liberties; the right of citizens and governments to be informed; relationships with other countries; and the potential damage that unconstrained espionage can cause to trade, commerce and the digital economy.
Only 10 weeks ago British spy chiefs were doing their best to ventilate their “cease and desist” rhetoric on journalists — implying they had no right to venture into their territory.
KEEPING THE PRESS FREE
A distinguished former editor wrote a rather shameful article wholeheartedly agreeing: “If MI5 warns that this is not in the public interest,” ran the headline, “who am I to disbelieve them?”
Obama’s panel of experts profoundly disagree.
“It will not do for the press to be fearful, intimidated or cowed by government officials,” they wrote. “If they are, it is ‘We the People’ who will suffer. Part of the responsibility of our free press is to ferret out and expose information that government officials would prefer to keep secret when such secrecy is unwarranted.”
So — informed initially by journalism, not by anything that congressional oversight or the courts have brought into the open — Obama’s panel set down to write a report which calls for more than 40 changes in the way the NSA collects, stores and analyzes information; how it deals more openly with US Congress, the courts and the public; and how it relates to technology companies, foreign governments and the Internet itself.
The report followed on from two other notable consequences — last week alone — from the reporting of the Guardian and others of material leaked by Edward Snowden.
On Monday last week, a federal judge ruled that the NSA’s intrusions into private lives using “almost-Orwellian technology” were almost certainly unconstitutional.
“I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and hi-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen,” Judge Richard Leon said.