Magazine article The Spectator

Spies Spy - Get over It

Magazine article The Spectator

Spies Spy - Get over It

Article excerpt

Our intelligence agencies have an important job to do

In the whole panoply of human idiocy is there anything so ridiculous as the outrage that occurs whenever people are reminded that spies spy? There was just such an outburst recently when Edward Snowden left his job as a contractor to the CIA and NSA, repelled, he said, by the discovery that surveillance programmes carry out surveillance. Snowden discovered that American and British intelligence agencies were involved in data trawling and was so horrified that he found it necessary to flee - first to the freedom-loving People's Republic of China and then, to seek asylum, to Moscow.

On the left of the political spectrum he is the new Julian Assange - though without the sex-crime charges.

Happily the new head of MI5, Andrew Parker, used his first public speech this week to inject some sanity back into the debate, and it was high time too.

As Parker reminded us, the intelligence services search for information not because they long to snoop on ordinary people, or feel a compelling need to read every email we send - but because they seek to thwart people who intend to harm us. We have enemies; there really are thousands of people hell-bent on blowing us up, and spooks exist to stop them.

The intelligence services don't read emails at random, they focus their attention only on those who are of interest to them.

Sometimes it seems as if we actually want to believe we're all being spied on, to make us feel more important. But the truth is that unless you spend your vacations fighting jihad abroad, no one's watching you.

And even if you are a frequent flyer to Kabul, it still doesn't mean that every area of your life is being snooped on. As Parker said, 'Being on our radar does not necessarily mean being under our microscope.

The reality of intelligence work in practice is that we only focus the most intense intrusive attention on a small number of cases at any one time.'

And we should be exceedingly grateful that they do; but instead, we choose to bleat. Certain newspapers not only allow, but encourage, a culture of leaks which damage national security - and for absolutely no visible gain. Just as the Pulitzer Prize in America is most easily won by printing information that puts American lives at risk, so a branch of journalism has grown up here in Britain which regards the highest prize as facilitating a national security leak. …

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