This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme:

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of what is now called GCHQ – the Government Communications Headquarters. During that century the world – including the worlds of communication, espionage and intelligence – has changed radically. Even when I joined as a linguist specialist back in 1980 what we thought of as cutting-edge technology now looks quaint. As the world, driven by technology has developed, so have the intelligence services, their competences and self-understanding.

When I was at Cheltenham, working mainly in Russian and German, the place itself was so secret it didn’t even appear on Ordnance Survey maps. Now they have open days, social media recruitment and lots of other imaginative ways of communicating their existence, preoccupations and value to society.

What haven’t changed, of course, are the basic questions of national security and the need for any country to learn the languages of others. Whereas the need for national security, in one sense, speaks for itself, the “learning the language of others” stuff might not be so obvious. But, effective intelligence work demands that you get inside the head of those you suspect of threatening you, look out through their eyes, listen through their ears, and understand how this shapes or directs their language and behaviour.

Now, there is a risk to this exercise. If you learn about another people and enter into their experience, you begin to comprehend and, sometimes, even sympathise with them. It isn’t quite Stockholm Syndrome, but it is risky. For example, learning about the experiences and historical contexts of my enemy might reframe my understanding of why they behave or speak the way they do. We all speak in codes and the codes depend on common intuitions or understandings.

I think this goes to the heart of being human in society. If empathy gets lost, then we find it difficult to read each other. Instead of being exposed to reality – which is often complex and nuanced – I pigeon-hole or stereotype them and then feel justified in the security of my own trench.

“Loving my neighbour as myself” is neither easy nor obvious. It isn’t something that comes naturally, but demands hard and imaginative work – letting the other slip beyond the box I want to put them in.

I think this is also pertinent in other areas of our common life in these strange times. Instead of lobbing accusations from trenches at those who see the world – or particular policies – differently, a decision to invest in listening, imagining and understanding does not come naturally to most of us. Listen to debates in Parliament this last week and it becomes clear how hard and how important it is that we try.

I might have left GCHQ a long time ago, but the questions it fed me have not gone away.

This is the text of this morning's Thought for the day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

In a previous life I worked as a Russian linguist at GCHQ in Cheltenham. As everybody knows, this is an institution now under public scrutiny because of its power to hold enormous amounts of information about any and all of us, usually without us being remotely aware of it.

I don't know about you, but the mere mention of the word surveillance triggers memories of George Orwell's 1984 or the world of the KGB and Stasi. Surveillance can only be bad or sinister, can't it? But, here we hit on a fundamental problem at a time when serious concerns are being raised about the limits that should be imposed on surveillance agencies as to the nature and quantity of data they should be allowed – or required – to hold.

The basic conundrum here is that we live in a society that wants – nay, demands – total security from threat, injury or conflict at the same time as demanding total privacy from any sort of unwanted intrusion. But, this circle simply can't be squared. If we want security from threat – for example, from terrorists on our streets or snoopers in our computers – we must accept a certain loss of privacy. In a world of technological complexity – in which the sinister experts in the field do their plotting in the dark places most of us don't even know exist – there is no alternative but for those whose job it is to protect us to have access to data.

There are two problems here, it seems to me. First, it is inherent to the nature of intelligence that any data might potentially be useful, and, therefore, should be collected and stored. But, who discriminates between what is useful and what is not? And how? Secondly, in a society that wants protection, we also have obligations that then impinge on what we sometimes lazily think of as rights. That is in the nature of a society – that we accept curbs on rights in order to protect the common good.

This goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve have grasped for power, they discover they are transparent and hide. Like them, we don't want to be seen through. Perhaps that's because many don't trust those who do the seeing – even if, as in Eden, this transparency is supposed to set us free from fear.

I am one of those who thinks that intrusion by the State or large corporations should be minimal, that surveillance services should be watched, scrutinised and held to account, and that the benefit of doubt should always be given to the individual. But, I can't then complain if something goes wrong on the social field because of my demand for privacy. There is always a cost either way.

This balance of individual rights with societal obligations is difficult to achieve. It seems to me, however, that fundamental to our judgement on the boundaries of privacy is the recognition that we can't have it both ways.

 

I have not had time to post on all the myriad of things going on in the world. I am writing this on the train back from London before heading off to lecture and preach at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena tomorrow (after a 3.30am wake up).

But, these are the questions I would ask anyway:

1. Why do newspaper editors want everyone else in the world to be regulated, scrutinised and accountable to outside agencies, but scream when it is proposed that they should be regulated, scrutinised and accountable? When did regulation become a synonym for censorship? How do you spell 'special pleading'?

2. What do members of the English Defence League think they achieved by coming to Bradford last Saturday and shouting to themsleves for an hour before going home again? Genuine question. Nobody was listening. It just seemed like a waste of time and money – to say nothing of the cost to Bradford and the police.

3. Are Manchester United fans not just the teeniest little bit embarrassed about bleating like babies after a couple of games where they didn't win? After laughing at everyone else for twenty five years?

4. Where was all this new Madeleine McCann stuff hiding before the UK police got going on it?

5. We already owned the Royal Mail; so, why were we asked to buy it?

6. Who decides whether Edward Snowden did the world a favour or played into the hands of the bad guys?

7. When is the Pakistani government going to start protecting all its citizens, particularly Christians who are being targeted with violence?

8. Which Americans are proud of their political system when it inhibits the working of government?

9. How do we get the balance between protection (intelligence agencies) and oppression (intelligence agencies)? And who decides what is appropriate secret service?

10. Are we nearly there yet?

 

Being away has made me feel a little detached from the sound and fury of home. But, as I used to work for them, I have followed the GCHQ/NSA business quite closely. It seems as if, suddenly and because of inept handling of the Guardian by 'the powers', people are waking up to the enormous ubiquity of surveillance in the UK.

So much has been written during the last few weeks (including this reflection from Der Spiegel in Germany) and I won't add to it here. But, what it all suggests is that – as I have written before now – (a) we need a public debate about the powers of 'the powers' who act in our name, (b) we need a public debate about what sort of security we want and expect, and (c) we need to ask if the answer to (a) and (b) has any consequence for the realism of our expectations.

We can't have our cake and eat it. If we want total security – which means giving security services some substantial leeway – there will be a cost in terms of privacy. If we want less surveillance, we must be forgiving when stuff gets missed by the security services.

Given that total security is an illusion anyway, I prefer to limit the powers of 'the powers' and then face the consequences. And I would resist complaint against the security services if/when stuff gets past them. We can't have it both ways.

If anything, however, all this Guardian/Snowden business demonstrates the importance of a free and professional press, capable of investigating and digging deep behind the propaganda. Which, of course, raises the further question about the viability of a responsible and professional press when the digital revolution is rendering the old business models obsolete and making it harder for good journalism to survive or thrive.

We have choices…

 

I caught a hint of a glimpse of a headline somewhere yesterday while on the move. It simply raised the question of how we, citizens of a democratic country, would have responded several decades ago to the suggestion that every individual would carry around on his or her person a tracking device. It sounds absurd, doesn't it? We would reject such a notion as being an infringement of personal privacy and a seriously worrying intrusion by the state (or other powers).

Well, like many things, we allow it to happen because rather than be presented to us as a policy, it simply creeps up incrementally as 'technological development'. So, now, without really thinking a great deal about it, we live in a surveillance state, whereby the 'powers' can know where I am, what I am buying, who I am texting/phoning, which websites I am perusing, where I am driving, who I am with, and so on. CCTV, road cameras, debit/credit cards, social media, mobile signal triangulation, store cards, etc. – the mere fact of this coverage makes any idea of privacy seem a little ironic (in an Orwellian, 1984 sense).

So, I was amused to read this morning's (always) excellent Newsbiscuit piece about GCHQ.

 

1. What do governments (and the rest of us, for that matter) think intelligence/espionage services really do with their time… and is there a clue in the title?

2. Was there a sadder face at Wimbledon than Laura Robson's today?

3. Is Edward Snowden so desperate that he thinks for one minute that Russia – the mighty, ruthlessly pragmatic and politically unsentimental Bear – might be a safe place to seek asylum from the USA?

4. Why were some of us dismissed when, during the Arab Spring, we urged a longer-term view (before declaring, as a US President once did, “Mission Accomplished!”) and suggested that pulling an existing system down is quicker and easier than establishing a viable alternative one?

5. What is the point of setting up an independent review body to determine MPs' pay, only to diss it on grounds of populist ideology?

 

I am not sure Fleetwood Mac were thinking of MI6 when they wrote Tell Me Lies way back in 1987. But the words came to mind while I was listening to the head of MI6 (Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service), Sir John Sawers today.

In the first ever public speech by an MI6 chief, he tried to explain something of the dilemmas faced by the intelligence services in fulfilling their commission on behalf of the people they defend. The main problem he faces in doing such a speech is to convince people that an organisation shrouded in secrecy and subterfuge can be trusted. Basically, how do we know when we are being lied to by those we pay to protect us and keep us ‘free’?

Blow the secrecy and you make most intelligence work – which is immensely complex and not usually for the fainthearted or the gullible – redundant. The very nature of the work means that games are played all the time – games in which reality, truth and honesty stand on a perilously thin line.

For example, should we be told about a threat to public order if the very telling (a) informs the protagonists that their ways and intentions are known – thus rendering the intelligence itself redundant and the process ended – , or (b) provokes the disorder it was intending to prevent?

Surely, not to tell the public everything is not the same as lying. The withholding of information is not the same as deliberately conning the public for sinister ends. If the public wants to be protected from (for example) Tube bombings, the public must trust the intelligence services to do its work appropriately. And this, as the MI6 boss said, pushes the service into very difficult areas of ethical propriety with which most of us do not have to engage.

The clear and unequivocal rejection of torture was important, but the statement itself begs further questions. The protected must also come to some conclusions about how high a price they are prepared to pay for their security: compelling the security services to refrain from action on certain intelligence even if that silence leads to a preventable terrorist attack being successfully executed?

This is the main problem. I remember meeting an old friend my GCHQ days in London. He was now working in counter-terrorism and observed his secrecy obligations to the letter in our conversation. But, he did express the frustration felt by his colleagues that the world knows (and has a view on) successful terrorist actions (such as the Tube bombings) whilst necessarily remaining ignorant of all the ‘attacks’ and plots that had been foiled, but could not be trumpeted. In other words, how does the public measure the success of the intelligence services when, by definition, it cannot know (a) what it does, (b) how it does it, and (c) where it is successful?

Yes, we have to be aware of the temptation in a secret world to get that world out of proportion and transgress on the wrong side of the ethical lines. However, we also need, at the very least, to recognise that the serious and sometimes unimaginable moral dilemmas faced by those we ask to protect us are tough, complex and hard to resolve tidily in a world that is hidden and mucky. The commentariat do their ethics sitting in a study; the intelligence services do theirs in a less comfortable environment. The commentariat usually has no idea of the ethical nightmares faced by those whom they easily and often ignorantly criticise. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t question and scrutinise, but it does mean they should do so with some recognition of the limitations of their own experience and perspective.

Sir John Sawers was interesting today. But, try thinking about what he said and you realise that he actually said very little. That’s how it is. Maybe that’s how it has to be. As the widely divergent responses to last week’s Wikileaks disclosures demonstrated, this a grey area of moral life, not a black and white one.