Sunday, June 30, 2013


Spies spy. What else is new? Why – aside from whipped-up commercial reasons – has there been day after day of outrage and astonishment about this vacuous truism: that spies spy?

So the National Security Agency of the US has been spying on diplomats and ministers in Europe. Well, of course it has. So the Metropolitan Police put a placeman in the circle of the family of Stephen Lawrence. Well, of course they did. So GCHQ monitors the emails and phone calls of ordinary British citizens. Well, of course it does.

Everyone who can use surveillance or get access to insider knowledge or listen in on supposedly private transactions does so. Why would they not? But do not run away with the idea that there are good guys and bad guys in any of this. Various media outlets spy on what it characterises as wrong-doers so that they may ‘expose’ them. For a reporter to pose as something she is not in order to catch on camera a politician unguardedly bending or breaking the rules is nothing short of entrapment. Not so long ago, the police used to entrap gay men in public conveniences by luring them with so-called “pretty policemen”. Most enlightened people found such tactics abominable. Entrapment is spying plus.

Then there are the “whistle-blowers”, the insiders who expose their employers for what they consider immoral and/or illegal activities. Edward Snowden is thought to be still in international limbo near Moscow airport. As John Kerry rather cuttingly suggested: in his attempts to avoid a return to the States, Snowden is not exactly soliciting assistance from regimes celebrated for their tolerance of free speech and full disclosure. Julian Assange, holed up for a year in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, hails Snowden as a “hero”. Some of those who put up and then lost bail for Assange may be reluctant to do anything similar for Snowden.

Like Bradley Manning, Snowden voluntarily joined the organisation whose trust he has betrayed. He knows he is in breach of pretty grave laws in the States. There may be other – less spectacular, less attention-seeking, less potentially lucrative – ways of combating illegality at one’s place of work than leaking screeds of classified material and fleeing around the world.

In a long-gone age, people who discovered wrong-doing reported it to the authorities. They did not seek to become celebrity amateurs at muck-raking journalism. Ah, you may say, but what if the authorities themselves are corrupt? Well, you take precautions. You make sure that there is a Plan B that will be implemented if someone tries to secure your silence. Perhaps, in order to pre-empt your assassination, you reveal that not only do you know about your employer’s crime, but also this knowledge will be released if your own terms (perhaps your safety and/or your continued gainful employment) are not met.

The thing is, there isn’t much point in having security if it cannot indulge in comprehensive spying. I couldn’t give a diddly-shit if MI6 or the CIA or indeed Amazon or Google or my bank or the local police force reads all my emails and listens in to my phone calls. They’re welcome to their dreary rounds of surveillance duty. If as a result a bomb doesn’t go off on the next train I take, I may be permitted to be quite pleased, assuming that I would ever know how close I may have come to being blown to smithereens.