Commentary: In democracies, voters warm to secret services

In the early hours of Tuesday in the northern UK cities of Sheffield and Chesterfield, armed police blew open doors of homes and a Muslim community center, arresting four men aged between 22 and 41. Scanty information given to the news media spoke of a planned “Christmas bomb attack,” now presumably averted. The police, it emerged, were acting on information given by the secret services, probably the domestic service, MI5.

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Britain has suffered four Islamist militant attacks this year, with 35 people killed, 22 of these mainly young people at a concert in Manchester. There has been one apparent “revenge” attack, when a man drove into a crowd of worshippers outside of a London mosque, killing one. Nine allegedly planned attacks have been averted by the secret services – which, with the police, are monitoring some 3,000 people who might prove dangerous. Law enforcers cannot, as they constantly repeat, always foil every plot, but so far they may have stopped the worst.

Fear of attacks – however infrequently they occur – has changed public perceptions of security agencies. The fear prompts support for, even dependence on, the work of the secret services; institutions which now, in the Western world, stand high in popular esteem and with strong public support for more resources and powers.

Security forces not been uniformly admired, and usually not at all in liberal society, which maintains a suspicion of their methods and motive. Liberals and leftists can see them – as Noam Chomsky has said of the CIA – as agencies existing to do “ugly stuff.” Skepticism of the services’ actions has a long and honorable history, rooted in the fear of loss of democratic control. In his memoirs, the former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson (1949-53) wrote that he warned President Harry Truman that the CIA, which came into existence in his presidency (1945-53), would become too powerful – “neither he, the National Security Council nor anyone else would be in a position to know what it was doing or to control it.”

These anxieties were neither groundless nor misplaced. America, unlike several European countries, did not have an organized spy agency until World War Two, and the country’s congenital bias against an overweening state, as well as the brutal examples of both the Nazi SS and the Soviet Union’s KGB, lay behind Acheson’s warning. Thus, though constrained by politicians, the judiciary and the press, the U.S. intelligence services remain on constant probation. It is an attitude of suspicion justified, many believed, by the 2014 revelations of Edward Snowden, who disclosed that the National Security Agency was collecting the phone records of millions of Americans and had tapped directly into the servers of international firms like Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.

The protests over the surveillance have been largely forgotten. In an extraordinary shift in public sentiment, the American secret services, battered by a president who veers between praise and vitriol for the agencies, have now emerged as defenders of constitutional propriety, and thus democracy. To this add the role they and police forces play in uncovering and averting terrorist attacks – with many more successes after the 9/11 attacks to concentrate minds – and the result is an implicit agreement between most of the left and the right that the secret services are the nation’s stalwart defenders.

So it is in much of Western Europe. The heads of the British agencies, traditionally men and women who lived in the deepest obscurity, now from time to time give speeches – usually, as Andrew Parker, head of MI5 did in October, to warn that the “terrorist threat from Islamist extremists” is increasing. "That threat is multidimensional, evolving rapidly, and operating at a scale and pace we've not seen before," said Parker. These warnings, whether by design or not, increase public dependence on the agencies – which have, over the past few years, seen a huge increase in staffing and resources.

European agencies go through similar cycles: French spies, once rocked by accusations of spying on journalists and political rivals on the secret orders of President Nicolas Sarkozy, now claim to have won independence from presidential meddling and are recognized as among the best agents in the world. They are aggressively recruiting communications specialists and linguists to assist them in preventing the kind of extremist attacks that made 2015 and 2016 into some of the bloodiest in Europe.

The German government is greatly increasing the budgets of both its domestic and foreign agencies, and plowing much of the increased money into wider and closer surveillance of communications – a move that sparked sharp debate in a country still sensitive to accusations of secret service power, but usually obtaining wide public support.

In Italy, a 2007 law ended the deep and sometimes venomous divisions between the Italian services, placing them under control of a Security Intelligence Department, itself responsible to the prime minister. The agencies now claim that “past memories of…inefficiencies” are distant (an optimistic boast), as are alleged secret service links to the 1980 bombing of the Bologna train station that killed 85.

The security services, the object of vast amounts of fiction, good and bad, have emerged in the past year as a democratic fact. In the United States, they are in the paradoxical posture of being more in tune with the constitution than the president. In other democracies, they have shed much of their sinister aspect – at least for now – as publics turn to them for protection against a terrorism they see as a threat to their way of life and the success of multi-ethnic societies.

This doesn’t mean that the safeguards against the services going “rogue” should be weakened. Indeed, as part of the reason for increased public support, they have been strengthened in most states – as in the UK and in the United States, especially over the NSA surveillance - in parallel with the strengthening of the services themselves. The change in public attitude has come, certainly, from fear of attack, whether from Islamic militants or the far right or left. But it also stems from a more mature sense that properly supervised secret services can ensure that a democracy stays that way. For that, we owe them gratitude – as long as we also remain vigilant over them too.

About the Author

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and “Journalism in an Age of Terror”. He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.