Notes From the Margins…

The National Security State: Knowing me, Knowing you

  • June 11, 2013
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There is nothing like ‘national security’ to bring about a reverential hush.   Governments invoke these words 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 use them to hint at threats or issues that are too significant or mysterious to be spoken about explicitly.   Journalists quail at the mention of the words, because national security is a serious business, and very hush hush.

As Lord Snooty reminded parliament 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.”

Terror and terrorism.   So be grateful that we have institutions devoted to ‘keeping us safe’, and governments willing to wage wars, overthrow regimes, kill ‘militants’ and ‘preachers of hate’ with drones, render ‘enemy combatants’ for torture or indefinite detention, work with 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 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.  Some members of the public may 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, because, 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.”

Therefore it is better that none of us knows anything since “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 whistleblowers like Edward Snowden draw attention to surveillance programs that have previously remained secret, and it is imperative to point out that such men are not courageous or heroic, but damaged and misguided individuals, especially when they make  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’s difficult enough for governments to keep us safe, 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 should take comfort from the fact that someone is watching over us, and 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 better for everyone if the public did not think about it,   and allowed the professionals to get on with their job, and ignore foolish dissidents like Snowden, who are only helping the evil ones.


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  1. Nik H.

    12th Jun 2013 - 8:24 am

    “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.”

    I guess that’s where Rumsfeld’s known unknowns come in handy. The public should be satisfied with knowing, that there are known unknowns, which must remain unknown in order to keep us save from all the terrorists, radicals, ogres, goblins and anarchists which are out to get us.

    How about a new motto/Spirit of the age: I don’t think, therefore I am (allowed to be save).

  2. Nik H.

    12th Jun 2013 - 2:07 pm

    Oh and by the way, I thought you might enjoy this picture:


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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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