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


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.

Why would they stop at mere hypocrisy once they know there’s no real penalty to be paid? That’s not how power works, and the real naivety lies in not realising that.

Unfortunately, it’s very much in keeping with all the excuses trotted out in the wake of the Snowden revelations. The most threadbare of all is the “every country in the world spies” line.

The US and the UK have fundamentally changed the nature of the spying game in the past dozen years; the NSA and Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, in England, have not carefully identified threats and targeted specific bad actors, but taken it on themselves to hoover up as much of the world’s communications as they can, devastating the concept of privacy in the process.

It’s far from George Smiley, in other words. It also fails the elementary “two wrongs don’t make a right” logic test, which is a pretty bad sign.

Corrosive excuse
But the most corrosive excuse for the behaviour of the NSA is the notion that all this spying is warranted because it “protects us from terrorists”. Given that much of the surveillance was targeted at foreign leaders and allies, the excuse seems unjustifiable – unless there was clear evidence that Angela Merkel was the last remaining sleeper agent of the Baader-Meinhof gang and was poised to wipe out the world’s leaders at an upcoming G20 event, in which case bravo NSA.

But the terrorist-protection rationale fails even the most rudimentary sort of cost-benefit analysis. We accept arguments about certain medications or procedures being too expensive to implement for the number of lives that can be saved, yet supposedly foiling five or 12 terrorist plots is worth billions of dollars, not to mention implementing an invasive system of mass surveillance. In no other area of public expenditure is so much paid for so little benefit.

And, as for le Carré’s observation about the secret services being a barometer of a nation’s political health, we might safely add that just as telling a measure are the arguments offered in defence of those secret services.

In which case the diagnosis is not reassuring.

Shane Hegarty is on leave

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