Bernard Ingham: Political row leaves spies out in cold, but secrecy is the price of our safety

NOTHING is quite so preposterous as the row over spying now reverberating down the corridors of power – except those in India whose president, apparently, does not have a mobile phone. Indeed, it would be hilarious if it were not so serious.

Where have Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, and Francois Hollande, president of France, been all their lives? They are making a tremendous fuss about the extent of American electronic surveillance – even to the point of Merkel ringing up Barack Obama and asking him if he is tapping her mobile.

If I were Obama, I would ask her whether she was hacking into his.

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I hope that behind this display of national pique lies the comforting thought in Berlin and Paris that somebody at least is trying to protect them as well as, of course, confirming that they remain true allies.

Now, do not get me wrong. My eleven years in No 10 did not make me an expert on State security. I retired in 1990 little, if any, the wiser about this murky world.

That was entirely as it should be. Margaret Thatcher’s attitude was simple and addressed to people as if they were utter simpletons: “What is the point of a Secret Service if it isn’t secret?”

Since we did not talk about security, I curbed my natural curiosity. After all, I had enough else to keep up with that I could talk about across the entire government. But we were under no illusions that our activities might well be being bugged, tapped or otherwise monitored – and not just behind the Iron Curtain where it was painfully obvious we were under close surveillance.

Take the time in Moscow where I found I could not even make myself heard in the British Embassy across the river from my hotel room because of all the taps on the phone. And then there was that comic interlude in Warsaw when Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader, told Thatcher, who thought his every sensible word over lunch should be heard by the Polish government, that they were listening in avidly, pointing to the chandelier.

Surely by now every president and Prime Minister, not to mention lesser Ministers, must know that they are probably being monitored by someone – if not necessarily the Americans or GCHQ in Cheltenham. If not, they are not fit for purpose, as they say.

Given the manifest need for security, the scope of the security industry itself with its built-in tendency to expand and the range of technology available, it seems to me that being monitored goes with the territory. And the world being what it is, I think I would feel safer for it.

This brings me to today’s real security conundrum. Islamists are waging war on the West as well as their own people. They are not the only threat from fanatics to the lives of innocents. Only last week extremists sent letter bombs to the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland and his commander in Londonderry. There are a lot of nutters around.

Towns and cities and our modes of transport make ideal stages for mass killings with their attendant publicity. But if you can’t wipe out a ‘planeload of civilians, a Prime Minister will do very nicely. The threat is real.

Given the number of suicidal extremists in our midst and the availability of weapons and explosives, I salute our intelligence services for keeping us as safe as they do.

But there is another aspect to modern society. It has a loose concept of loyalty.

It is obviously the devil’s own job to screen out of the security system such driven exhibitionists as Edward Snowden, the US National Security Agency’s whistleblower now holed up Moscow.

What is more, computer technology has put hundreds of thousands of documents at the disposal of the leaker who can in turn count on what David Cameron describes as the “lah-di-da, airy-fairy” so-called intellectual end of the press to make the most of the material, regardless of its implications for national security.

That seems to be the least of the arrogant Guardian’s concerns as it spills out Snowden’s treachery almost daily.

How do governments reconcile this dog’s breakfast with responsibility to protect their citizens? It depends on what value you put on human life vis a vis personal privacy.

So far, I think there is more to say for the American and UK governments than there is 
for the whistleblowers and their vehicles – a bunch of commercially attuned and self-adoring but essentially empty editors.