When the stories emerging from the top-secret files of MI5 are not pervaded by a whiff of dark comedy, then the stories about the security services which emerge in public tend to reflect badly on them. As ex-spies from the lean and elderly Peter Wright to the young and bulky David Shayler have discovered, Britain's spymasters are ready to use heavy judicial sledgehammers to crack the smallest nut.
The security services themselves are in danger of seeming a cross between irrelevant dinosaurs and all-powerful monsters. In reality, they are neither. But they have only themselves to blame for being badly perceived. Secrecy is the tool of their trade. But compulsive secrecy may also be their downfall.
It can be tempting to suggest an equivalence between the two sides: KGB, MI5, what's the difference? The answer, of course, is the difference between life and death. The KGB was an instrument of murder, for evil ends. MI5 and MI6 may not always have behaved admirably. But they do at least represent a set of principles. Since they represent those principles, they ought also to be ready (and allowed) to defend those principles publicly.
During the Cold War, the existence of the security services was straightforward and uncontroversial. They existed because of a powerful political enemy which was eager to destroy the very fabric of Western democracy. That is not hype; it is simple truth. In the wake of the Cold War, the all- powerful enemies are gone. In those circumstances, the security services have sought to reinvent themselves, fighting modern battles against drug traffickers, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation.
All of which the security services could sell more actively. Operational secrecy is essential; but secrecy about the agencies' philosophy does nobody any good, least of all the spies themselves. In recent years, we have finally (officially) been allowed to know the name of the spymasters. But this is hardly dynamite stuff, given that the name of the head of the KGB was public knowledge even in the old days of the Soviet Union. We really should be several steps ahead of that, in terms of public accountability.
Why should Stephen Lander, head of MI5, not appear on Newsnight or write bylined pieces in the national press? In the United States, such openness is taken for granted. There is no reason why MI5 or MI6 should be any different.
Our society is still poisoned by the culture of secrecy, which is closely related to social divisiveness: some are born to rule and have knowledge; some are born to be ruled and remain ignorant.
The security services are not just made up of reactionary public school types. The old school tie, if not dead, is dying. But the spies' refusal to discuss themselves - and the politicians' refusal to allow them to talk - can only encourage the outside world to draw the worst possible conclusions. There is no downside to openness. Let us have an end to the secretive farce.