Only a complete fool could still deny that Edward Snowden’s revelations have damaged our national security and the security of the West more broadly. Apart from providing details of actual intelligence operations – and thereby suggesting how best to hide from them, both the Russians and the Chinese now have his data, or better our secrets, and will be subjecting it to the most assiduous analysis.
Small wonder that many of the major players in Britain’s security and intelligence community have spoken with one voice to condemn The Guardian. But such a massive level of official and expert anger shows that the impact of the Snowden affair may be even more devastating to this country but in a different way.
When Sir David Omand (the father of British counter-terrorism policy) suggests Snowden has done more harm to the UK than the Soviet moles, he amplifies the tough message from the head of the Security Service, MI5, Andrew Parker.
Although Parker didn’t mention either Snowden or The Guardian by name, but no one could doubt he was speaking of them when he said: “Making public the reach and limits of GCHQ techniques…hands the advantage to terrorists. It is the gift they need to evade us and strike at will.”
Alerting us to the “several thousand Islamists here who see the British people as a legitimate target”, he virtually begged the public to give MI5 and GCHQ the new laws that are needed: “We cannot work without tools” he said or “let shifts in technology erode our capabilities”.
Security at stake
On one level, what is at stake here is the future effectiveness of our intelligence community (of which gaining public trust in what is does in the nation’s name is a central part). On another level, however the issue, and how it is resolved, will determine what sort of country post-Snowden Britain will become.
Currently we (not least our rulers) see ourselves as a global power, with global interests and a global reach to protect them. In large part this position of power (and our global reach to exercise it) stems from three facts of British life, each directly connected in purpose to the other: our nuclear deterrent capability, our armed forces and our secret intelligence community.
Yet what gives us our critical mass as a power is one single, overarchingly important reality: our intense and intimate security relationship with the US. Intelligence cooperation is its throbbing heart.
The might and weight of British intelligence, particularly of GCHQ, comes directly from the intelligence-sharing agreements we have with the NSA. It is no coincidence that the core security relationship we have with the US is the relationship between the NSA and GCHQ. The British government rightly calls it “unparalleled”. The 1946 “UKUSA” agreement which gives the UK unique access to American intelligence was negotiated by British and American codebreakers who had worked together on electronic interception at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.
If our intelligence community ceases to be effective, or can no longer be trusted to deliver, our security ties to the US will be cut. It will follow as night follows day. The moment the UKUSA agreement is torn up will be the moment we cease to be a global power with global reach. Some would argue there could be few things better. It would certainly be a fitting memorial to Snowden and The Guardian.
But in a world where Britain continues to be in the target of terrorists and extremists and organised criminals and sex and drug traffickers, all of whom operate a global level against us, and in a world where British values are still more decent and more needed than we often believe, we would, without UKUSA at a stroke be rendered blind and deaf, incapable of protecting ourselves and powerless to do good.