Agencies should not be upset if we reveal that they run a listening centre in the Middle East

Our national security is vital – but those that enforce it  are not beyond scrutiny

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The Independent Online

The news that there is a GCHQ monitoring station in the Middle East tracking internet and satellite information should not, in itself, be totally surprising. The scale and scope of it may well be, but these are among many details The Independent is not printing.

The trade-off between freedom of the media and national security is an uncomfortable one for journalists, especially when one hears of newspapers having to destroy hard drives containing information from a whistleblower, Edward Snowden, some of whose revelations, at least, were in the public interest.

But a trade-off there is. We need to be fully aware of the danger that those catch-all words, national security, are used to justify unnecessary invasion of our privacy, sometimes in order to try and hide the incompetence of the security and intelligence services and their political masters.

We must be vigilant against any sign of a creeping police state.

But we do have to accept that we face a formidable threat from terrorism, and the reason that we have had not had a major atrocity since 7/7 is due, to a large part, to the highly professional work of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ.

Looking at the back-to-back terrorist trials taking place in the courts gives us a glimpse of the bloodbaths that could have occurred on the streets of Britain if just some of them had succeeded. A huge amount of the prosecution evidence in these cases come from surveillance – secret videos, intercepted telephone calls. The burden of proof is high, juries do not simply accept the words of spies and policemen.

It is also worth remembering that when there is a successful attack, such as the recent killing of Drummer Lee Rigby, the immediate hunt, often led by the media, is for mistakes by the security agencies. Why weren’t these suspects known earlier? Why weren’t they followed? Why weren’t their phones tapped?

I hasten to add that if there had been genuine blunders by the agencies in these cases, they should be exposed. At the same time we also should not be seduced into thinking that the right response to such mistakes is to give them even greater powers and unlimited resources.

The corollary of us accepting that the security agencies carry out surveillance is that we should be able to look, at times, at how they do it. This does not mean that the media has an inherent right to expose secrets that would jeopardise operations, and we have not done so in this case. But it also means that the agencies should not be upset if we reveal that, for instance, they run a listening centre in the Middle East.

People would expect them to do so in a region enmeshed in so much turmoil, which had been the source, at times, of bombings in this country.

There are, invariably, moral dilemmas associated in intelligence work. These issues have been addressed by the chiefs of the agencies in public and their conclusions can, and have been, challenged.

These issues are not apparent in the case of this particular GCHQ operation. There is always the possibility that the information collected can be misused as it is passed to other Western intelligence agencies, but there are checks against that and it is a risk, it seems, the vast majority of the public are prepared to take in return for protection against the ravages of terrorism.