Peter Hennessy: The pressure for more transparency in our secret services

From a lecture by the Attlee Professor of Contemporary History, marking Humanities and Social Sciences Week at Queen Mary, University of London
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The Independent Online

The "Secret State" - that is, intelligence and the Secret Service - is once again a developing area of British politics. "The Old" refers to intelligence during the Cold War, while "The New" is the intelligence that has been revived since the terrorist attacks in America on 11 September and the war in Iraq.

The "Secret State" - that is, intelligence and the Secret Service - is once again a developing area of British politics. "The Old" refers to intelligence during the Cold War, while "The New" is the intelligence that has been revived since the terrorist attacks in America on 11 September and the war in Iraq.

I believe that UK intelligence assessments are as fundamental now as they were in the 1940s and 1950s.

In many ways, the UK is the most experienced country in the world for intelligence services. We've had four centuries of carrying out secret service activity in one format or the other when, for example, the United States has only been carrying out intelligence work of a similar nature since the 1940s.

However, while the UK may be the oldest and therefore most experienced intelligence service, in today's world it is far from the most advanced. Considering spending after 9/11, Britain's intelligence budget is now approximately one-fifth of that of the US. Quite simply, if the US pulled the plug on intelligence, the UK's secret service would fall into second position instantly.

Intelligence does more than spy on other countries. Secret service systems can be very revealing of the countries they exist to protect; in some ways intelligence is the last identity of the country. The secret services are the only real radar of a country's political health.

The question now is how much of the new secret state will reach parliament, the press, and - most importantly - us, the people. I don't think we can expect anymore dossiers like those around Iraq. However, I do expect more background papers in the future.

The shock of the 9/11 attacks, combined with the situation in Iraq, provided no end to the lessons of war. However, will our learning continue?

In the future, we can expect the press to be pressing for greater transparency and accountability from the government with respect to intelligence. No doubt, legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act will encourage this transparency.

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