Leaders: Intelligence agencies must play by rules

Intelligence agency staff see themselves as a barrier between the civilised world and terrorist organisations. Picture: Getty
Intelligence agency staff see themselves as a barrier between the civilised world and terrorist organisations. Picture: Getty
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WE are all in debt to those who carry out the difficult and often dangerous work of our intelligence agencies and to those who co-operate with them across the world. Every day, others risk their lives to ensure our safety.

It is worth reflecting upon this as we consider the implications of a report alleging torture by CIA operatives on terror suspects. Those in the field do a difficult job; their opponents, however, do not play by the rules.

Intelligence agency staff – with some justification – see themselves as a barrier between the civilised world and terrorist organisations that embrace carnage.

But, although agents work in a twilight world, their activities performed in the shadows, when they operate on our behalf they must do so within the rules of our democracy. It is not for them to decide when our laws should be abided by and when they should be ignored.

It is hardly surprising that the CIA and a number of its past leaders are engaged in a campaign to discredit the findings of a five-year US Senate investigation into the agency’s practices. The report which stems from that inquiry alleges the torture of suspects and may yet expose the agency to legal action around the world, as well as undermining confidence in the US government.

Some of the allegations of brutality contained within the report suggest a culture where international laws were blithely ignored.

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The CIA’s defence – that the report is a political stunt by Democrat senators – does not seem particularly robust given the time and effort expended upon it. The agency may try to rubbish the claims made against it but there is no way it can escape the serious questions that have been raised.

Nor can anyone who depends upon the work of intelligence agencies. We all have a responsibility to consider what we believe to be acceptable in the name of national security, in our name.

If intelligence agencies employ methods they don’t want the public to know about, they are treating the public with contempt, as if they are children. ­Instead, let us debate what we are willing to accept, and hold ­security agencies to account on those terms.

There is much to consider. Some will argue – as the CIA has – that practices we might consider unacceptable have resulted in thwarting terror plots that could well have claimed many innocent lives. Uncomfortable as that suggestion might sound, and putting aside for one moment the argument that the information obtained through torture is often unreliable, that is something which must be considered.

If we say that torture can never be employed, are we willing, then, to accept the possibility that a terrorist attack may be more likely as a result?

Intelligence services can’t make that decision. They act with our permission and have to operate within the law, even if they believe it is in our best interests for them to act beyond it.

Scots mortality rate is still too high

SCOTLAND’S international reputation for premature death is well-established. Study after study over the past 30 years has revealed ours to be the highest mortality rate in the UK.

So a report showing at least some narrowing of the gap with England is to be welcomed.

But a small drop in the mortality rate, along with news that more Scots are now killed by cancer than by circulatory diseases, is hardly the basis for celebration (although, it should be pointed out that cancer’s dominance is due to a significant decrease in the number of fatal heart attacks and strokes).

We have been debating Scotland’s health record for decades. Successive governments have prioritised the issue. Countless billions have been spent on research and education.

And yet we appear no closer to understanding, let alone solving, the mystery of why Scots tend to die earlier than the English.

The gap may be closing but the difference in mortality rates remains significant. And, around the world, similar post-industrial societies seem not to share the same health problems to a similar extent. We must find a way of understanding why Scotland is failing in this regard. Is it simply a question of mindset?

We must guard against a fatalistic attitude. We have developed a tendency to laugh at our own reputation for poor health. We joke, darkly, about our boozing and over-eating. But we should not accept high mortality rates as an inevitability of living in Scotland.

This country’s mortality rate remains unacceptably high. It’s time to apply renewed imagination and analysis to this problem, not simply take it on the chin.

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