If you were to guess, you would probably say that Chris Blackhurst of The Independent – a respected career journalist described in 2011 as having spent “most of his life writing about politics” – is likely to be pretty clued up on official doublespeak.
Yet, in his recent column the former editor of the UK national paper makes this startling point: Snowden leaks have damaged national security because the intelligence community says so. “If MI5 warns that this is not in the public interest who am I to disbelieve them?” said Mr Blackhurst.
It doesn’t take a genius to realise that when government officials give opinions publicly, what they say will very likely be shaped by their interests and political alliances. Hence, the question I would rather see Chris Blackhurst asking is “Who are THEY for me to disbelieve them?”
The Snowden disclosures – which, among other things, have encouraged calls for more transparency and accountability of the secret services – are clearly inconvenient for the intelligence community. Hence, the head of the MI5 should be entirely expected to be making those criticisms. Indeed, as this analysis strongly suggests, ‘the security line’ has been used in efforts to conceal government wrongdoing from the public eye. As in the case of Wikileaks disclosures, the supposed damage to national security was proven to have been deliberately inflated on at least several occasions.
Consequently, unless backed with evidence, the allegations of the MI5 boss are a paper tiger – something to which a considerable portion of the public (including, worryingly, a senior journalist) is seemingly oblivious to.
Just how clouded the truth could become if one was to take words of politicians at face value was conveniently demonstrated on Wednesday, coincidentally, by the most important politician in the country. During Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron and Liam Fox (former defence minister) had a brief exchange. Liam Fox requested a:
“[F]ull and transparent assessment of whether The Guardian’s involvement in the Snowden affair has damaged Britain’s national security”
He then went on to suggest The Guardian was behaving hypocritically by calling for prosecution in the phone-hacking scandal (to which he dismissively referred to by “the hacking of a celebrity phone”) while being guilty of “leaving the British people and their security personnel more vulnerable”.
Fox’s empty accusations and dishonesty in asking a question that he already claims to know the answer to are notable. But Cameron’s highly liberal interpretation of reality in his response to Fox’s question is a work of art (emphasis added):
“I think the plain fact is that what has happened has damaged national security, and in many ways The Guardian itself admitted that when, having been asked politely by my national security adviser and Cabinet Secretary to destroy the files that it had, it went ahead and destroyed those files.”
Take the main claim the PM is making – that by destroying the files in response to a “polite” request, The Guardian admitted that the leaks were damaging national security.
To start with, the notion of a polite request is not based on reality. The Guardian – as widely reported – destroyed the files in fear of legal action. As Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the paper said when he made clear what led to his decision:
“I explained to British authorities that there were other copies in America and Brazil so they wouldn’t be achieving anything.
But once it was obvious that they would be going to law I preferred to destroy our copy rather than hand it back to them or allow the courts to freeze our reporting.”
Evidently, the decision to destroy the files was strongly influenced by the fact that the act was essentially symbolic. And indeed – reporting on the Snowden files continued regardless; the copies of the files can still be accessed by other media outlets.
Likewise, it is definitely not a “plain fact” that national security has been damaged. To the contrary – no evidence has been produced and there are strong reasons to distrust that assumption given how it can be, and has been, leveraged to the detriment of public interest.
David Cameron’s claims don’t stand simple scrutiny.
The claim that Snowden disclosures jeopardised “national security” (or even gave the so-called ‘terrorists’ a better understanding of counter-terrorism) is even weaker when we consider how much already had been in the public domain before June 2013. Take James Bamford’s widely accessible record of the history and capabilities of the NSA, renowned for its detail. Duncan Campbell’s reports that meticulously document GCHQ’s infrastructure, partnerships and the ins-and-outs of ECHELON are just a few clicks away for users of the internet. There are many more publications that elaborate on very detailed aspects of the intelligence cycle. Those materials form a comprehensive body of detailed knowledge that dwarfs anything the Snowden disclosures have brought to light.
Chris Blackhurt’s trust in the intelligence community that they will “keep the world safe” is not a good enough reason to hinder an informed debate over crucial matters of public interest.
There is a pressing need for citizens to become more politically aware in this potent time for reform. Journalists are meant to play an important role in this by providing the public with an enhanced, not superficial, understanding of political issues.
A former editor of a major national newspaper openly announcing that he uncritically accepts claims of state officials as the truth is not exactly the perfect start, is it?
 What is also notable – almost to the point where it justifies a separate post – is Liam Fox’s special relationship with the Guardian. In 2011, he was forced to resign after the newspaper’s investigation, which revealed he had been giving unwarranted access to the Ministry of Defence to a “former flatmate”. Coincidentally, Mr Fox was accused of jeopardising national security at the time.