Tinker Tailor Snowden Spy – a chilling story of surveillance and government hypocrisy

If the secret services are a measure of the state of a nation’s political health, what do the Snowden leaks reveal?

Spooked: Gary Oldman as George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Spooked: Gary Oldman as George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Sat, Nov 2, 2013, 01:00

During the summer I picked up a copy of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, not long after Edward Snowden’s revelations of the US National Security Agency’s vast surveillance were breaking. Reading it, I was struck by one of le Carré’s typically well-wrought lines about how the “secret services were the only real measure of a nation’s political health, the only real expression of its subconscious”.

It’s an observation that has come back to me frequently since, with every subsequent leak and sorry revelation. Read as a barometer for the political health of the US and the UK, these revelations suggest there’s a lot to be worried about.

On Thursday the US secretary of state, John Kerry, finally offered a hint, a smidgen, of contrition: “In some cases, I acknowledge to you, as has the president, that some of these actions have reached too far.”

There’s a heavy dose of equivocation in that remark, and nothing that can be construed as an outright admission of wrongdoing, God forbid. But is it the start of a journey back to full health? Maybe, but what is perhaps most interesting about Kerry’s remarks is the context in which he made them: a video address to the annual summit of the Open Government Partnership, an initiative that aims to “promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance”.

Earlier this year the British prime minister, David Cameron, promised that, as leaders of the partnership this year, the UK would “drive a transparency revolution in every corner of the world”.

This is the same David Cameron who this week said that if newspapers, by which he meant the vexingly disobedient Guardian, “don’t demonstrate some social responsibility it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act”. Which is a veiled threat only if you have a very loose definition of the word “veiled”.

“Social responsibility” in this formulation means “not embarrassing the secret services by revealing the unchecked overreach of its surveillance programmes”.

So, we’ve diagnosed a touch of the “transparency for thee but not for me” syndrome. Or let’s just agree to call it hypocrisy.

Insidious worldview
There’s a strain of thought that we shouldn’t be alarmed by the hypocritical behaviour of the likes of John Kerry or David Cameron. It’s naive, apparently, to think that these powerful people should avoid saying one thing and doing another. It’s hard to overstate how insidious that worldview is. If you give political leaders carte blanche to act as hypocrites, then no wonder they will eventually take that as carte blanche to ignore every social principle we supposedly hold sacred.

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Róisín Meets...Dawn O'Porter