There is nothing like the words ‘national security’ to bring the tumbleweed whistling through the public domain. Governments invoke them whenever they want to do things that they don’t want people to know about or when they want to do things that the law doesn’t allow them to do.
Politicians invariably utter them with a sense of semi-religious awe, hinting at hidden terrors that are too dangerous to talk or even think about, at unfathomable mysteries and dark secrets that are too complex and frightening to be revealed, at the precariousness of a society that is constantly threatened by evils beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals.
No wonder journalists quail at the mere mention of the words, like Transylvanian villagers in a Hammer horror film when a stranger comes into the bar and asks for Dracula’s castle. Because national security is a serious business, and very hush hush, and so it should be.
After all, as Lord Snooty rightly pointed out on Monday, fending off suggestions that GCHQ might be involved in the PRISM scandal: ‘We do live in a dangerous world and live in a world of terror and terrorism. I do think it is right we have well-funded and well-organised intelligence services to keep us safe.’
Just think of that readers. A world of terror and terrorism – when either one would be bad enough. So be grateful that we have institutions that are entirely devoted to keeping us safe, and governments that are willing to tuck us into bed at night and allow us to sleep peacefully while they wage wars, overthrow regimes, kill ‘militants’ and ‘preachers of hate’ with drones, render ‘enemy combatants’ for torture or indefinite detention, work with plants and agent provocateurs in order to conjure up terrorplots that they can then arrest people for starting.
And we also ought to accept the fact that our governments need to know stuff – lots of stuff – and that our intelligence services, or at least the US intelligence services, may have to watch and gather information about us, without our being aware of their presence or what information they are gathering or what they are using it for.
Of course some members of the public may find this disconcerting, and whitter on about privacy and the surveillance state and intrusive government. But it is unreasonable to expect those who are protecting us to account to us for what they do.
After all, as a Times editorial (subscribers only) noted on Monday in reference to the PRISM scandal:’ Explaining national security to a concerned public is a tricky business. Inevitably, that which the public knows is also known by those who mean to do the public harm.’
Got that, you dull-witted groundlings? No? Well let me make it clear. What the public might want to know about what the government knows or wants to know cannot be known because the evil ones may also want to know it.
Therefore it is better that none of us knows anything because, as the Times points out: ‘Britain’s security services work on behalf of the British people, not against them. Few of us will ever fully recognise the work they do, successfully, to keep us safe.
In these circumstances it is not helpful when traitors like Edward Snowden break their sacred contract with government and draw attention to surveillance programs that have previously remained secret, that they are not brave or courageous or heroic, but damaged, egocentric and misguided individuals with an inflated sense of grandiosity, whose revelations may be facilitating the work of the evil ones, through irresponsible statements like this:
‘We managed to survive greater threats in our history . . . than a few disorganized terrorist groups and rogue states without resorting to these sorts of programs. It is not that I do not value intelligence, but that I oppose . . . omniscient, automatic, mass surveillance. . . . That seems to me a greater threat to the institutions of free society than missed intelligence reports, and unworthy of the costs.’
Such observations are not helpful and should be ignored. Because national security is a serious business, and it is difficult enough for governments to keep us safe in the midst of an endless war against the enemies of civilisation, without every Tom, Dick and Harry thinking they have a right to know what our security services know – and the fact that they want to know it probably means that they know something that they don’t want the government to know.
Law-abiding citizens, on the other hand, should take comfort from the fact that someone is watching over us and embrace that invisible presence like an imaginary friend or a guardian angel. And if from time to time we wake up in the night and feel anxious about the terror and terrorism that threatens to kill us all and destroy our values and our way of life, we should remind ourselves that the intelligence services are toiling night and day with one single aim: to keep us safe.
That is what national security is all about, and it would be far better for everyone concerned if the public did not think about it, and allowed the professionals to do their thinking for them.
And if you ever have doubts about this, just remember that the evil ones are always out there, waiting to do us harm.