More support for secret services

This article is more than 12 months old

Once considered sinister organisations, intelligence agencies have become more relied upon by the public

On Dec 19 in the British cities of Sheffield and Chesterfield, armed police blew open doors of homes and a Muslim community centre, 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.

Britain has suffered four Islamist militant attacks this year, with 35 people killed.

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 foil every plot but so far they may have stopped the worst.

Fear of attacks has changed public perceptions of security agencies. The fear prompts support for - even dependence on - the work of the secret services; institutions that now, in the Western world, stand high in popular esteem.

Scepticism of these services' actions has a long and honourable history, rooted in the fear of loss of democratic control.

These anxieties were neither groundless nor misplaced.

In the US, intelligence services remain on constant probation. It is an attitude of suspicion many believe justified by the 2013 revelations of Edward Snowden, who disclosed that the National Security Agency was collecting the phone records of millions of Americans and had tapped into the servers of companies such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft.

The protests over the surveillance have been largely forgotten. In a shift in public sentiment, the US secret services have now emerged as defenders of constitutional propriety, and thus democracy.

So it is in much of western Europe. The heads of the British agencies, who typically live in obscurity, give speeches from time to time now - usually, as head of MI5 Andrew Parker did in October, to warn that the "terrorist threat from Islamist extremists" is increasing.

These warningsraise public dependence on the agencies - which have seen a huge increase in staff and resources in recent years.

European agencies go through similar cycles: French spies, once rocked by accusations of spying on journalists and political rivals on the secret orders of then president Nicolas Sarkozy, are now recognised as among the best agents in the world.

Security services, the object of vast amounts of fiction, have emerged in the past year as a democratic fact.

They have shed much of their sinister aspect - at least for now - as the public turns to them for protection against terrorism.

This does not mean 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 Britain and the US in parallel with the strengthening of the services themselves.

The change in public attitude has come from fear of attack. 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 remain vigilant over them too. - REUTERS

The writer co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism think-tank at the University of Oxford.