Alex Massie: Keeping us safe from harm

They sought him here, they sought him there, they sought that damned elusive man everywhere.

A man walks past a banner showing support for the fugitive Edward Snowden. Picture: Getty

Like the Scarlet Pimpernel, Edward Snowden is a hard man to pin down. He may have been evidently quite ill-suited to work at the National Security Agency (NSA), but his ability to lead the world’s media a merry dance suggests that he is better prepared for covert fieldwork than had been previously thought.

Yesterday, in scenes that could have been taken from Evelyn Waugh’s great novel Scoop, an Aeroflot jet stuffed with journalists left Moscow for Havana. The slavering press pack had assumed that Snowden would be flying with them. But of the world’s most notorious whistleblower, there was no sign.

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Perhaps it is appropriate that the latest episode in the Snowden saga should be so farcical. If Snowden wished to shift attention from the substance of his complaints, he could hardly have done better. Doubtless he is aware that there is a measure of irony in sheltering from American “persecution” in China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela or Ecuador – none of them bastions of liberty.

If he wishes to avoid an American courtroom, Snowden has few comfortable refuges. There are few corners of the world beyond Washington’s reach and most of them are dark places. Even so, complaining about state-sponsored surveillance from the sanctuary of a Chinese or Russian hotel room is rich indeed. As Rand Paul, the most libertarian member of the US Senate, observed: “I do think for Mr Snowden, if he cosies up to the Russian government, it will be nothing but bad for his name in history.”

Snowden appears to have developed an aversion to intelligence gathering of any sort. Few other explanations justify his leaking material detailing how the US and UK spy on China or Russia. Anyone surprised, let alone shocked, by this is too tender-spirited by half. There is nothing too astonishing about the revelation that spies spy on the people we expect them to spy upon.

Like royalty, however, spying is a trade that cannot withstand daylight. Sunshine ruins the magic. As the novels of John Le Carre have long made clear, the secret services are unavoidably compromised. The shadows are places of deep moral ambiguity. The tension involved in upholding the standards of an open, liberal, society while still effectively combatting those who seek to destroy such a society is a conflict that is both unavoidable and resistant to easy resolution.

While we might reasonably expect to hold our governments to a higher standard than that applied in Moscow or Beijing, we should be just as careful to resist sloppy, even obscene, suggestions of moral equivalence. Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom justify the heavy-breathing invocations of George Orwell that have become fashionable in recent days. The US is not actually, as the left-wing New York magazine the Nation described it, “a modern-day Stasi state”. As Orwell put it in 1941, arguments that democratic nations are somehow just as authoritarian as non-democratic states “boil down to saying that half a loaf is the same as no bread”.

In any case, some of Snowden’s revelations are less troublesome than seemed the case when they were first reported. For instance, contrary to the Guardian’s initial reporting on this matter, the NSA’s Prism programme does not permit the agency to directly access tech company servers. Rather, it appears to be a software tool analogous to data-storing facilities such as Dropbox, allowing firms such as Google or Facebook to share requested data with the American authorities. The distinction may be technical, but it is important nonetheless.

The US authorities insist these data requests – thousands of them – are covered by judicial warrants. But of course they would say that, wouldn’t they?

Moreover, it is true that we would surely salute an Iranian or Chinese whistleblower who revealed comparable secrets about their intelligence operations. Few of us are consistent in these matters.

In any case, legality is hardly a synonym for ethical. The United States Congress was built to be a constant reminder that what is legal may yet be scandalous. But what did we expect? Leaking details about British and US intelligence operations may well be in the broader, international, public interest. No-one, however, should be shocked by the broad thrust of the story. Just what did you think intelligence agencies do with their time and money?

There are sensible questions to be asked about the extent of the post-9/11 approach to counter-terrorism, but listening to some of Snowden’s admirers you could be forgiven for thinking that there was no need for counter-terrorism operations at all. More Americans drown in their bathtub each year than are killed by terrorists, we are told, and we are encouraged to think this means that counter-terrorism operations are a colossal waste of time, money, effort and attention.

There is an unwarranted complacency about such assertions. If the government uses successful anti-terrorist operations as the justification for ever greater and more intrusive powers, so it is the case that some libertarians too easily argue that the absence of successful terrorist attacks proves that the threat has been wilfully exaggerated.

The truth – as it so often is – is more modest and lies somewhere between these extremes. The threat is real, which is one reason why the privacy and civil liberties concerns voiced by the likes of Barack Obama and David Cameron when in opposition rarely survive contact with the realities of government. Power begets responsibility and heavy is the head that wears the crown.

In truth, the internet is both a sprawling, unregulated jungle and a surveillance state in and of itself that requires no government intervention to track your every move. Online, no-one may know your name but Big Data knows what you do. It is foolish to pretend that this cannot sometimes be useful. For instance, Chinese military hackers targeting the United States were unmasked when they accessed their Facebook accounts from the same networks they were using to penetrate US computers.

Despite this, governments cannot be trusted not to abuse the powers at their disposal. The only way to hold them to elementary levels of probity is to make a fuss about government intrusion into our so-called private lives. Even that may not always be enough. As the journalist and author, Nick Cohen wrote recently: “Just because democracies are not dictatorships does not mean that they cannot act like dictatorships if an apathetic or frightened citizenry allows them too much leeway.” The “price of liberty,”he suggested, “is not just eternal vigilance but perpetual exaggeration.”

The intelligence business is a murky world, but if we are right to be concerned by the possibilities now open to the state (and, just as worryingly, to corporations), we might also remember that the intelligence services exist for a reason. There is no perfect trade-off between security and liberty and nor can there ever be. But that does not mean we should cease searching for the best accommodation between these twin and vital competing concerns. The most useful thing Edward Snowden has done – more useful by far than the detail of his revelations – is to remind us of that truth.