Cameron is not the first PM to be seduced by intelligence services
The government would do well to consider what intelligence activities are really necessary today
GLENN GREENWALD and David Miranda seem to have lost the plot. They assume that the gathering of intelligence is invariably malevolent, and are so obsessed with the notion of individual human rights that they simply cannot understand that modern states have rights too.
Both the Guardian journalist and his partner look to me like men in quest of human rights martyrdom: they have pursued nothing health-threatening such as nicking documents from President Putin or the Israeli Foreign Intelligence agency, Mossad; instead they've got themselves involved in a nice cosy spat with the British police that will look good on the CV.
They seem to think that they should be the final arbiters of what states should and should not be allowed to keep secret. I would rather entrust the protection of British secrets to the judgment of the elected prime minister, Mr Cameron, than to Mr Greenwald (a US citizen resident in Brazil) and his partner Mr Miranda (a Brazilian).
But the prime minister represents something equally annoying – an executive still over-impressed by a discredited intelligence establishment and still stuck in a post-911 hysteria. Using the Terrorism Act 2000 to detain Miranda at Heathrow was crazy. He is clearly not a terrorist. If we had reason to believe he might be in unauthorised possession of classified documents, we could easily have entangled him in the complex tendrils of the Official Secrets laws.
Most prime ministers end up seduced by the intelligence services. The incumbent receives his or her daily reports on a range of issues from across the world at nine o'clock sharp – some of which might contain exciting gossip about other world leaders and interesting titbits. For a few brief minutes every morning it must seem that once again Downing Street is at the centre of events – the prime minister of the day can pretend that he is Winston Churchill.
It's an expensive habit keeping 50-plus MI6 stations abroad gathering mainly political intelligence. He would do better to read The Week online.
In the early 1980s the deputy head of MI6's Paris station ran a very expensive agent – a trades unionist close to the heart of the Mitterrand government. The CX (MI6's codename for highly classified human intelligence reports) produced by this agent was lapped up in London – they couldn't get enough.
The predictions and judgments about the intentions and preferences of Mitterrand's inner circle often turned out to be accurate. Except it was a scam. The MI6 man had invented the agent and was pocketing the money to fund an extravagant lifestyle. He made every top secret report up – largely from a close examination of the French newspapers.
The Paris affair was concealed for many years from the British people – indeed the MI6 miscreant managed to land a plum job in the City with the effusive backing of his former employers. But more recent scandals have been played out mercilessly in the 24-hour media.
The British intelligence and political establishment is still in denial over the effects of the intelligence fiascos in Iraq, and, later Afghanistan. The public got a glimpse behind the green baize door and didn't like what it saw one bit. The lying involved over the Iraq dossiers was shocking enough but what was breathtaking was the complete absence of any helpful or actionable intelligence about Iraq at all.
What on earth had MI6 and GCHQ been doing since the end of the First Gulf War? And God knows what the intelligence predictions for our intervention in Afghanistan came up with - home in time for Christmas, probably.
The mystique of Bletchley and Bond is gone, and with it a good deal of traditional respect. But that does not mean we do not need certain types of intelligence to keep us safe and that the way it is gathered should remain secret.
The government would do well to consider what intelligence activities are really necessary. For instance, we could do away with much of our counter-terror effort if we had proper border controls and were able to be more choosy about who we allowed onto these shores. The government should also consider urgently what secrets are vital to national security – and then surround them with a physical and legal ring of steel.
As the late US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it in a 1996 address to the Department of State: "If you want a secret respected, see that it's respectable in the first place." ·