It is only 10 days ago that we learned, courtesy of the American whistle-blower Ed Snowden, that the US National Security Agency had a rival for champion global eavesdropper in our very own GCHQ. Indeed, it appeared, GCHQ’s operation Tempora – which allegedly taps into internet traffic carried by under-sea cables – was in some ways more comprehensive, more sophisticated and more global in its reach than the NSA’s Prism, which had been the subject of Snowden’s earlier revelations.
So why did Tempora flit so briefly across our horizon, and how come this vast national intelligence operation was so quickly and completely reabsorbed into the obscurity whence it came? It is hardly as though last month’s emergency Commons statement by the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, left no questions in the air. And this was before the revelations about Tempora, which both Mr Hague and his fellow ministers have left conspicuously without comment.
Silence is one way of shutting down a sensitive subject. Another – as deployed recently by Mr Hague – is ridicule, which deserves to be challenged more often than it is. Listen to what he said: “The idea that in GCHQ people are sitting working out how to circumvent a UK law with another agency in another country is fanciful. It is nonsense.” Is it? Really? A similar put-down was used when British diplomats were caught using a false rock to spy in Moscow – only for Tony Blair’s chief of staff at the time to admit the truth once Labour was out of office. Absurd and embarrassing? Yes, but not fiction.
While ministers occasionally lift a corner of the curtain on GCHQ, however, there is one area where the official shutters regularly come down, and this is the hallowed topic of UK-US intelligence-sharing. And they really came down this time when some analysts and MPs asked whether intelligence-sharing might allow each service to comply with the letter of its respective national law, while driving a coach and horses through the spirit.
Whether it happens or not, the temptation for intelligence services to exploit mismatches in national laws is beyond doubt. And where there is temptation, someone will succumb. Indeed, it is not hard to envisage just this sort of exchange being quietly lauded as the very essence of what makes the special intelligence relationship special. Such twin evasions of national safeguards, however – and their consequences – are also why it is high time for this arrangement to cease.
The hoary old topic of the “special relationship” is still raised whenever a British prime minister visits Washington or a US president comes here. In diplomacy, though, it is largely accepted as a relic. We can train each new president to mouth the words, but he does it only to please. The disparity in power is too great for it to hold any meaning – with one exception. In substance, the special relationship has become a euphemism for intelligence-sharing.
The intimacy between our intelligence services, though, has increasingly become a liability. Its most ardent British devotees are invariably of a certain age and an uncritical Atlanticist disposition. Or they have links with intelligence. Accepting that British power has waned, they see intelligence-sharing as the UK’s entry ticket to the global elite. There are grim prophecies of the irrelevance into which Britain would sink if it stopped acting as the US’s special agent for the north-east Atlantic.
So loudly does the “special relationship” lobby protest that the counter-arguments are rarely heard. The fuss about Prism and Tempora, though, illustrates why they should be. Sharing intelligence may give us access to (some) US secrets – but how reliable or even useful has this been? Would we have joined the Iraq war if we had not given each other false courage with (suspect) intelligence? How far is the UK’s involvement in the illegal rendition of terrorist suspects a product of the special intelligence relationship? And how far has the accountability of successive British governments been compromised by their fear of losing privileged intelligence access?
Whenever applications are submitted for court evidence to be heard in secret or not at all, the pretext given – directly or indirectly – includes possible damage to international intelligence relationships. Rendition cases, the 7/7 inquest, even the struggling inquest into the death of Litvinenko have all been affected. It may be that intelligence-sharing gives the Government an excuse to be as secretive as it would want to be anyway. If not, it entails a serious diminution of our sovereignty.
Nor does the damage stop here. The revelations about Prism and Tempora have harmed our relations with the European Union, starting with Germany – which, for obvious reasons, is particularly wary about government surveillance. But it is not just Germany. Europeans and Americans have different ideas about personal privacy and the balance between national security and individual freedom. The differences were accentuated by 9/11, but predate those attacks. Government access to personal computers was a bone of contention as early as the 1990s. And British sentiment in this respect is more European than it is American.
With the EU and the US about to open talks on the world’s biggest free-trade treaty – a treaty about which the UK is, unusually, as enthusiastic as its EU partners – this is the worst possible time for a transatlantic dispute. But it is also a bad time for a British government to align itself with intelligence priorities that the voters would not share.
The danger is that, if this UK government, like its predecessors, tries to keep its place at a transatlantic top table that is outdated and no longer represents our interests, we could lose our place at another top table – the European one – which is closer, makes more economic sense and is better matched to British sensibilities, including on privacy. Not for the first time, the UK needs to be clearer-eyed and less nostalgic about where its national interests lie.