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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Ashdown Group: PHP Web Developer / Website Coordinator (PHP, JavaScript)

£25000 - £28000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: PHP Web...

Recruitment Genius: Estates Projects & Resources Manager

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in London, Manchester, Br...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: moderate, iconic royals are a shoe-in for a pedantic kicking

Guy Keleny
 

Letter from the Whitehall Editor: Cameron is running scared from the “empty chair”

Oliver Wright
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us