In democracies, voters warm to secret services
In the early hours of Dec 19 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.
Britain has suffered four Islamist militant attacks this year. 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.
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 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.
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. 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.
*This abrigded article has been published in Reuters