A British subservience to government

Jonathan Freedland writes: Think of it as the ‘‘Skyfall’’ session. In a committee room of the House of Commons, the heads of the British secret services appeared on Thursday before a panel of M.P.’s in what might have been a re-enactment of that scene from the latest Bond movie — minus the shootout.

Even without gunfire, it was not short of drama. The mere sight of the heads of Britain’s domestic and foreign intelligence agencies, MI5 and MI6, along with the director of its listening post, G.C.H.Q., was spectacle enough. This was their first joint appearance in public, addressing a parliamentary intelligence and security committee whose hearings had, until now, always been held behind closed doors. (Indeed, little more than 20 years ago even the names of the intelligence chiefs were a state secret.)

That fact alone guaranteed coverage on the evening news. Which meant a rare focus on the topic that provided the session’s most electrifying moments: the Edward Snowden affair. Rare because the dominant British reaction to the revelations provided by Mr. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, has been a shrug of indifference. The Guardian helped break the story — that the N.S.A. and G.C.H.Q. (Government Communications Headquarters) have engaged in mass surveillance of American and British citizens online — and has covered it intensely, but the rest of the British media have largely steered clear. In Parliament, a few maverick individuals have raised concerns about civil liberties and privacy. When others have mentioned the subject, it’s mostly been to accuse The Guardian of damaging national security, rather than to ask whether the intelligence agencies have gone too far.

What explains this reaction — so at odds with the response in the United States, where Congress is reviewing its oversight arrangements and where everyone from President Obama on down has acknowledged that a debate is necessary, if not overdue, and so at odds with, say, Germany, where memories of Stasi eavesdropping ensure revulsion at the notion of all-seeing surveillance? The answers say much about the current political landscape of Britain — and much of what lies beneath. [Continue reading…]

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