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Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser for the Conservative Party until 2008. Follow Garvan on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-06-10 at 17.10.41I remember once reading in the New Yorker that American special forces were working in Iran looking for nuclear weapons sites. My immediate thought was “Good. That’s exactly where they should be.”

So with the “revelations” this week that the National Security Agency and GCHQ have been co-operating in spying on British and American citizens. They are just the kind of thing you expect intelligence agencies to be doing. Why do you think they hire all those mathematical whizzes? I, for one, find it reassuring that the realm’s clandestine services spend taxpayers’ money on more than the construction of ostentatiously spectacular offices .Indeed, despite all the spying that goes on, Britain and the United States remain free countries.


In Britain, petty officialdom, rather than the secret state, seems responsible for most interference with people’s lives.  It does so because both the NSA and British agencies are limited, at home, to gathering intelligence. The evidence they gather can’t be used in court, so doesn’t affect people’s liberty. The agencies are governed by strict laws to prevent leaks. They don’t just deter their staff  from leaking to left-wing newspapers, they also stop them from leaking information about their friends’ business competitors or spouses’ lovers.

That wall needs to be preserved. Giving ordinary police intelligence-type snooping powers would be very dangerous indeed .More interesting is where this apparently courageous whistleblower has fled. To territory under the control of that Goldwater-worshipping outpost of libertarian extremism: the Chinese Communist Party. Ever suspicious anything that happens between the mouth of the Potomac and the San Andreas Fault, there’s no evidence the Guardian thought it worth asking: why is he in Hong Kong, of all places? And just this week of the American-Chinese summit…

But there’s a disproportionately influential section of the Left that follows one rule: against America, right or wrong. This is the tendency for whom “A bully with a bloody nose is still a bully” was a wise thing to say just one week after 9/11 – which opposed intervention in Kosovo, canonised Hugo Chavez, and now defends Assad’s hold on power. For them, any evidence of moral equivalence between Western democracies and tyrannical dictatorships is to be seized and magnificed. This has become the latest stick with which to beat the societies in which they live, and which rightly protect their freedom to sell this nonsense to the fewer and fewer people who choose to buy their papers.

How long will it be before the Chinese authorities parade Edward Snowden like a defector to the old Eastern Block? One of their excellent diplomats must surely already be honing his lines: We may have Ai Weiwei and Chen Guangcheng, but you have Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. Never mind that Mr Snowden and Cpl Manning volunteered for work in the service of their country. Or that Cpl Manning is being given a fair trial. Or that American and British newspapers were able to break real scandals — like the secret torture programme — without legal repercussions. 

Dictators’ first resort is to say “We’re not worse than you, just different.” Hence the Soviet Union’s insistence on inserting economic and social rights into the UN declaration.  We may not have free speech, their commissars would admit, but aren’t you falling short on ensuring that “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit?” That they then fiddled the figures, repressed those who told the truth, and even had to build a wall to keep their citizens from fleeing didn’t stop generations of intellectuals in the West from endorsing Soviet tyranny – transfixed, as I think the late Conor Cruise O’Brien used to say, by Matthew 7:3, unable to see the beam in the other’s man’s eye because of the mote in their own.  

Our democracies are far from perfect, but we have the freedom to speak out, institutions to devise reform, and procedures to force change. During this summit this week, President Obama should remember that the political system over which he presides is immeasurably superior to Xi Jinping’s hierarchy of repression, with which business has to be done, but for whose demise every free person should hope.

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