Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
Any terrorist worth his salt should assume that his phones and emails are being monitored. The Guardian’s publication of the astonishing fact that spy agencies are actually engaged in spying should come as no news to Al Qaeda. It did have side-effects: as well as winning it readers in the States, it reminded its editor that press regulation won’t only be a stick to beat Murdoch and the Mail. But a major breach of security like those perpetrated by Kim Philby or Alger Hiss, hardly.
From the way the story has been reported it would appear that GCHQ’s expansion was dreamt up after too many hours watching The Lives of Others and The Office. So take pity on the new recruit to the security services who had hoped to spend the first few weeks in language training to be sent to some exotic clime, to be fitted for a fine dinner suit or evening dress, and perhaps to drive a souped up automobile transformed by John Cleese’s elves into a road battleship, but who instead is told to pore over hundreds of intercepted Facebook status updates (“Great pizza. Extra pepperoni! That is all”) and left to mull the question of vital national importance — does “extra pepperoni” really mean extra pepperoni, or is does it in fact refer to the acquisition of new explosives by a terrorist cell?
But GCHQ’s recruitment offer is rather different. A career in the Cheltenham Cubicle Farm is marketed above all as an intellectual challenge, aimed at the apolitical, and far more exciting than the tedious testing of third-rate database applications (think of that thankfully cancelled NHS Computer or your company’s expenses system).
Imagine that our most elite soldiers considered themselves merely professionals of the military arts, committed to the ethic of their craft but not to the Queen they had sworn to serve. Imagine if they thought it a matter of indifference or even coincidence they they served Her Majesty rather than the Chairman of the Central Military Commission or the President of this or that other country. Or that they believed that democracy, freedom, and the rule of law were in essence propaganda designed to conceal the pursuit of power by the corporate interests that “really” control the world.
Though not, fortunately, true of elite soldiery, these attitudes are surprisingly common among the nation’s elite programmers and IT specialists (years ago, as a spotty and long-haired physics student, I knew this crowd rather well). Many of them share a sympathy for an anarchistic technological utopia, a suspicion of the intentions of governments and a tendency to believe conspiracy theories. They’re often the first to reach for a simplistic invocation of 1984 (so well demolished recently by Padraig Reidy). When Edward Snowden insisted he wasn’t the only IT specialist unhappy with high tech spying, we should take him at his word.
Trained in an engineering discipline that demands pedantic exactitude, and in which computer code is either absolutely right, or absolutely wrong, many software engineers find the nuances and ambiguity of political practice hard to understand. They hear the official statements of principle that our leaders make on TV, and contrast them with the grubby reality of modern counter-terrorism: a grubby reality in which they are deeply implicated.
It’s all to easy then, to charge our leaders with hypocrisy, and ask how different can they be from the the leaders of Russia, Syria or China? It’s only a small step from this to establishing to their own satisfaction a moral equivalence between Western democracies and authoritarian regimes. Don’t all have large military-industrial complexes? Don’t their security forces commit extrajudicial killings abroad? Don’t they spy on their own citizens? Such disillusioned and cynical and often lonely men (they are almost all men) make ideal targets for recruitment by foreign intelligence agencies. We are fortunate that Edward Snowden chose to leak his secrets to the Guardian, and not, as previous generations have done, to the modern equivalent of the KGB.
In the rush to build up cyber security capability, the NSA neglected to ensure its recruits were motivated by patriotism. If British intelligence agencies have done the same, then they risk having hired staff vulnerable to recruitment or suborning by foreign powers or terrorist groups. That, rather than the content of these leaks, is the real danger to national security.