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 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, 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”. Scepticism of the services’ actions has a long and honourable history, rooted in the fear of loss of democratic control. In his memoirs, former US 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 organised spy agency until World War II, 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 US 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. 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.
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.