Kirkhope on the role the US should play in the intelligence community to counter terrorism.

Mar 26, 2014


In the last five years I have spent what seems to be almost every day in the European Parliament negotiating issues related to security, and in the European Parliament this is just about the “hottest potato” you can be handed. The last 12 months especially have seen an intense political divide in the Parliament on these issues. The Parliament’s “investigation into mass surveillance” has been a severe test of ideologies, and has highlighted the vastly different histories of the Nations represented. I must remind you it was not such a distant memory for so many of my colleagues in Central and Eastern Europe for their phones to be tapped, and for secret police to raid their homes in the middle of the night; but to me, a Briton, intelligence is something that had protected me, my family, and our Nation, and helped us defeat oppression and extremism in recent history.

What is clear is that there is no united voice in the European Union on this issue, but there are strong reactions on both sides:

Some politicians thought that one solution was not actually to scale back the general use of intelligence and surveillance, but that it would be far more reassuring to Citizens if the European Union itself created a new super intelligence service. I do not agree!

Then there were those that wanted to herald Edward Snowden as the greatest advocate of democracy since Lincoln. It is looking increasingly unlikely that he will be able to collect a Nobel peace prize in that bastion of freedom known as “Vladimir Putin’s Russia”

There were some Politicians from my own country who seized upon the opportunity to score political points by pointing the finger and saying how outrageous all our anti-terror laws were, whilst not seeing the irony that it was their political party that had created and contributed to these laws.

There were those that shouted out calling the United States the enemy, and demanding that all the important cross-Atlantic anti-terror agreements be suspended immediately with PNR (Passenger Name Records), Safe Harbour, and SWIFT banking security affected and that trade negotiations (TTIP) must be stopped.

I found myself accused of holding the most extreme view of the lot.

I actually held, as I still do, the controversial view of believing that more could be achieved by wielding more diplomacy between friends rather than through an irrational and disproportional show of strength.

America is the EU’s closest ally and now is not the time to retreat but to find a way forward together, based on shared values and trust, and a common aim to fight the global threat of terror.

There is no need to put aside beliefs, but there is a need to put aside differences. Our two sides must talk in a frank and open way, with the aim of compromise in mind which still secures Liberty and Democracy.

I state clearly that I believe that surveillance and intelligence gathering is necessary to protect us from the ever increasing threat which we face; and that continued EU – US cooperation in this field is not only vital but to be encouraged. I regard Edward Snowden as nothing more than a traitor and a wanted felon who must be held accountable in a free court of law, and I also firmly believe that our core beliefs of freedom and liberty should never be sacrificed in order to defeat our enemy.

But it would be naive to believe that in protecting citizens there is not a necessary loss of some privacy. Our job as legislators is to make sure that that loss is proportionate and justifiable.

9/11, 7/7 in London, Madrid and Bali were tragic events and we are certainly not free of the threat of more, and in a perfect world there would be no need for surveillance. But in a world where literally thousands of security threats are prevented and detected every year, surveillance is a necessary tool in a fast moving, technologically sophisticated and dangerous world. And the role and value of the US in the intelligence community is unrivalled. Our opponents and terrorists use these new technologies – we must too!

We live in a world with high stakes; a world of dirty bombs, nuclear weapons, biological diseases, and ever more innovative ways of killing and menacing our populations.

But, there are those that believe privacy is a right which supercedes all others that must always be untouched, whatever the consequences. However,there is also a large majority who demand responsibility and safety. Telling the victims of terrorism and telling a country that they have liberty and freedom is inappropriate in the aftermath of a terrorist attack.

Individuals demand to know why things were missed, why they weren’t protected, why people had to die, and why we were unable to deliver quick and effective justice to perpetrators.

After the Brighton bombings which nearly cost the life of Margaret Thatcher, the IRA famously said, “Remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.”

The intelligence capabilities of the United States and the United Kingdom are not just a consequence of superior investment, but a consequence of necessity. America and the United Kingdom are not necessarily the countries which are most at threat on this unprecedented scale, but they’re the countries which rightly or wrongly are relied upon to keep the rest of the world safe. And in a world of tight budgets, defence cuts, and increasing threats, investment into counter-terrorism and surveillance is the area which we cannot afford to neglect.

We live in a world where individuals are not only prepared to kill others for what they believe in, but also themselves.That’s new! The enemy no longer just comes from far away to kill us, it comes from home and from within our own society ; and until last summer all European leaders were talking about the necessity and the value of enhancing our ability to respond to terrorist threats through the active use of counter-surveillance and intelligence gathering and online surveillance, and the use of data will increasingly become a feature in a rapidly developing world. Internet chat rooms and the darkest corners of the internet are virtual meeting places where extreme attitudes are shared, strengthened and validated. The internet is also a place where tragedies are planned, financed and executed.
So other countries have to become able to defend their infrastructure from acts of terrorism and also cybercrime, and not to be the weak link in a global chain.
But the U.S. and the UK would not need such a monopoly on the intelligence community if other countries put more investment into building up a credible sector of detection, and a secure network which would enable us to better share information. Germany, for instance, has recently invested tens of millions of euros in expanding its own intelligence gathering system, and although this system has yet to go live, it is an indication that other countries see a need for increasing counter intelligence rather than scaling it back.
But now it is likely that this investment by other countries will slow in light of recent public opinion and media criticism. Low level whistle-blowers, journalists and editors lacking in all expertise in this field have drawn conclusions from information they do not understand, and have presented it to the public in a way which can not appreciate its context or collection; this is something I believe to be beyond irresponsible. What is absent from the finger pointing and the rhetoric from critics of the intelligence community, is a discussion about existing oversight, independence, and accountability of the intelligence community. The sensitive nature of the information used in the oversight process often makes accountability almost invisible, even if it is ever-present. Any requests by GCHQ for access to British citizens’ emails would need proper legal authority, potentially including the personal approval of a minister or even Prime Minister. Whilst the UK and the US have the most sophisticated and wide-reaching systems of surveillance, they are also undoubtedly the two countries with the most effective and extensive systems of independent oversight in the world.
So, in all this, it is unfortunate that many Members of the European Parliament and other critics have not given more attention to the important work that has already been done by the Congressional Intelligence Committee. Perhaps the greatest indication that the United States placed liberty at the heart of its aims was that in the face of criticism, America did not just turn its back and cover its ears; it showed that it was capable of a radical self-evaluation with regard to its relationship with privacy and its own citizens in the modern world.

That is why I believe that the relationship between the EU and the US must continue to strengthen in the fight against terrorism and because common ground and basic values are undoubtedly there if you look for them.

Both the U.S. and the EU will always face the same debates, privacy versus accountability, society versus cyberspace, personal responsibility versus government enforcement.

Our two systems may be different but our aims are the same, to reconcile the protection of our citizens and our territories, whilst preserving control of our personal information and our personal rights. We both have these tools and whilst one may be protected in a constitution, and one may be protected in a charter of Rights, those rights are actually there, written and preserved and guiding us in this vitalwork.
– This speech was delivered at the Woodrow Wilson centre in Washington DC.