I Spy

Quis custodiet ipsos custodies? The phrase, traditionally attributed to Roman poet Juneval, is literally translated as who will guard the guards themselves or, more typically who will spy on the spy on the spies? But a more topical question might be to ask on whom should the spies by spying? The revelations by the fugitive agent Edward Snowden that the United States has been monitoring the telephone calls of leaders from three dozen nations including the German Chancellor has ruffled a few feathers.

Ahead of last week’s EU summit in Brussels, the Poland’s minister of digitalization said that if it is true that top government officials from various countries had been under surveillance it would be a global scandal. Really? I have always assumed that all governments spy on each other and as scandals go this one seems pretty small beer. Of course, Angela Merkel’s experience in East Germany (the film The Lives of Others providing a brilliant portrait of that illegitimate regime’s approach to its citizens’ privacy) has obviously given these revelations an added poignancy. She said that something must change and that once trust has been compromised, cooperation on intelligence becomes more difficult. For his part, President Obama is reported to have said that Angela Merkel’s mobile telephone is not being monitored now nor will it be in the future while refusing to say what might have happened in the past.

When asked whether conversations between Angela Merkel and Polish prime minister Donald Tusk had been monitored, Minister Boni said that he was not sure whether the German Chancellor has called the prime minister on her mobile telephone and that as far as he knew such conversations took place in where security could be assured. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, there is only one thing worse than being spied upon and that’s not being spied upon – if I were Donald Tusk I should be rather disappointed that the United States only considers my being worthy of eavesdropping when talking to Angela Merkel and not in my own right.

To be serious, the scandal, if scandal it be, has not died down with British journalist Duncan Campbell putting on his website shots of the roofs on US Embassies in Europe – including here in Warsaw – showing shed-like structures which are allegedly full of eavesdropping equipment, part of a CIA/NSA programmme to spy of foreign governments and their communications centres. And as a German delegation arrives in Washington for talks at the White House today, the USA remains pretty unrepentant with Director on National Intelligence James Capper testifying before the House of Representatives that discerning foreign leaders’ intention was a basic tenet of what the intelligence service collect and analyse.

The real scandal, pace Minister Boni, is not that spies spy but that the proper democratic controls – making due allowance for the nature of spying in the first place – are systematically avoided or that in the interests of the “war” on terror ancient liberties are over-ridden with scant regard for the consequences. Heads of government are perfectly able to look after themselves but ordinary citizens are not. For example, it appears that the USA and the UK may have been exchanging surveillance information about each other’s citizens which it would have been unlawful for them to have gathered first hand. Of course, the intelligence services have an unenviable task of trying to discover and remove potential security threats but there is a difference between monitoring aimed at a specific threat and collecting data about the population in general in case it might be useful later. It is ironic that those who are the first to attack the intelligence services for their perceived abuse of power are the first to ask: “why didn’t they know” when a plot is not detected.

However, even the most extreme circumstances do not excuse an undermining of the rules put in place to guard the guards. If we accept, or are persuaded to accept, that when it comes to national security the ends justify the means then in a sense the terrorists have already won for, if history has taught us anything, it is that those who seek extraordinary and exceptional powers, typically to meet some temporary threat, while chanting that “the innocent have nothing to fear” are those most reluctant to cede those powers which are soon used on ordinary citizens. Liberty given up is not easily won back. The sort of monitoring to which Merkel and others now object always seems to be less of an issue in their eyes when aimed at the rest of us. The only saving grace, I suppose, and it is not really the answer, is that given the sheer amount of data available and collected, the intelligence services probably do not have the resources to examine any but those immediately relevant to particular cases, a point made by the head of the UK’s security services last week. Put simply, we must allow the intelligence services to do their work but they must follow the law and allow proper democratic scrutiny. After all, they should have the intelligence to distinguish friend from foe.

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