Contrasting responses to US surveillance in Germany and the UK

This post is prompted by a recent Twitter exchange with Stuart Wilks-Heeg, of Liverpool University. Following an article in The Guardian which noted that German politicians were proposing a return to using manual typewriters in response to revelations of US surveillance activities in Germany, Dr Wilks-Heeg observed that the political response to the Snowden revelations in Germany and the UK ‘could not have been greater’, and wondered at the relative lack of media and societal concern in the UK compared to Germany. Having exceeded my capacity to respond in 140 characters, this represents a more detailed and hopefully considered response.

We should be careful not to underestimate the level of concern within the UK, recent revelations about US surveillance have featured prominently in the British media, most notably The Guardian, as well as Der Speigel, The Washington Post and The New York Times. Nevertheless, reaction amongst politicians and the public certainly appears to have been more muted in the UK than  in Germany.  The British public have generally been supportive of the work of the intelligence and security agencies and although there was initially considerable support amongst the British public for Edward Snowden’s decision to leak US documents, this has fallen in more recent polls. Moreover, there has been little evidence of public support for reining in the power of the intelligence agencies. A YouGov poll undertaken in October 2013 after the publication of the Snowden revelations, found that only 19% of British public felt that the British intelligence agencies had too many powers, while 42% felt they had enough power and 22% thought they should have greater powers. Comparative polling data is difficult to come by but research carrried out by Pew Research, which asked individuals in 44 countries whether they thought it was acceptable for the US government to monitor the communications of citizens in their country, found that  87% of Germans thought this was unacceptable compared to 70% of Britons. The British public were less concerned about US surveillance than those polled in any other European country. When the same question was asked in relation to US surveillance of the communications of the leaders in their respective countries, 65% of Briton’s thought this was unacceptable, compared to 90% of Germans. In this case Germany was at the top of the poll, while the only European country with citizens less concerned than the UK about US surveillance of their leaders was Italy.

The difference in political responses has, if anything, been even more marked. Following the revelations about the interception of Chancellor Merkel’s communications, the German Bundestag launched an inquiry into US intelligence activities in Germany. Although initial expectations were low, the Committee of Inquiry has exceeded expectations with its determination to examine US activities. This was highlighted last month when the Committee took evidence from former NSA officers turned whistleblowers. One possible indicator of the scope of this inquiry was the recent claim that a German intelligence officer was arrested for spying on the Bundestag Committee of Inquiry on behalf of the Americans.

In contrast the British Intelligence and Security Committee has been broadly supportive of the British agencies’ involvement in US surveillance activies and it is inconceivable that the ISC would take evidence from disaffected intelligence officers, from Britain or the US.  Instead the ISC used its first public evidence session to provide a platform for the heads of the UK intelligence agencies to refute allegations that British agencies were involved in the widespread or illegal surveillance of British citizens and to highlight the damage caused by whistleblowers such as Snowden. Aside from some critical comments from the Home Affairs Committee which did take evidence from the editor of The Guardian and may yet seek evidence from Snowden, there has been little critical scrutiny within Parliament. Recent revelations regarding the manner in which the British intelligence and security agencies interpreted the law to allow for the monitoring of social media use by British citizens, generated only a modest ripple of parliamentary interest (see earlier post on Tom Watson’s EDM), and this week’s debates on the emergency Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill were poorly attended and passed through the House of Commons with an overwhelming majority, and little detailed scrutiny.

The most obvious explanation for the different response to the Snowden revelations in Britain and Germany, is that while Germany has clearly been a target for NSA surveillance at the highest level, the UK is a long-standing partner of the US intelligence agencies. Had Snowden revealed that the communications of the British Prime Minister had been targeted by US intelligence agencies, the response of the British media and public would presumably have been quite different. Few British newspapers or indeed the British public are likely to be concerned that the US has been targeting the phonecalls of the German Chancellor, and some may even be supportive of this. Of course the suspicion may arise that if the US is targeting allies why not the British, reinforcing the old intelligence adage that there are no friendly intelligence services just the intelligence services of friendly powers. However, in addition to details of US surveillance of allies, the Snowden files also revealed in considerable detail the extent to which British agencies have worked with the US agencies in intelligence collection.

However, as Wilks-Heeg suggested there may also be deeper societal reasons for Britain’s relative lack of concern about US surveillance. German citizens have suffered at the hands of their own secret services, during the Second World War, and more recently at the hands of the East German secret police, the Stasi. Given these experiences it is perhaps not surprising that Germans are more concerned about the exercise of state power, and the use of covert surveillance in particular. In contrast, the prevailing British view of intelligence appears to be based upon a combination of the war winning achievements of Bletchley Park, and the derring-do of James Bond. For a long time the most well-kept secret of the Second World War, Bletchley Park is now feted by politicians and Royalty, and its achievements have been invoked by successive Prime Ministers in making the case for increased vigilance and investment in communications security. Whilst one should not exaggerate the impact of James Bond  and other fictional representations on popular perceptions of the British intelligence agencies, research carried out by YouGov in 2013 found that a significant proportion of the British public felt that the intelligence agencies should be able to exercise considerably greater powers than at present including one in five of who felt the agencies should have a licence to kill ‘with no questions asked’. Moreover, in the cases of both Bletchley Park and Bond, Britain’s impressive intelligence apparatus is directed firmly at external enemies.

The sanguine public attitudes towards the British intelligence agencies also extends to Parliament.  The situation has improved somewhat since the 1980s, when one former MP in the Thatcher government interviewed for our research, observed that asking questions about intelligence was viewed as ‘unpatriotic’. Nevertheless, with one or two notable exceptions parliamentarians on both sides of the House are slow to criticise the work of the intelligence and security agencies. Statements and questions about the the work of the agencies are often prefaced by lengthy tributes to the vital work they carry out in the national interest. Although there is nothing wrong with this per se, it does help to create an environment in which the small number who do raise questions about the agencies are viewed as an ill-informed minority with a propensity for conspiracy theory. Moreover, a culture of deference is also apparent within the Intelligence and Security Committee itself. Members of the ISC interviewed for our research observed that some members clearly feel privileged by their appointment and as a result may be reluctant to ask difficult questions. As one member of the current committee observed there is still a tendency for some members of the ISC to get ‘starstruck’.

In contrast as a result of their historical experiences the Germans have a much stronger system of parliamentary accountability for intelligence agencies. Germany, along with the Netherlands, was one of the first states to establish legislative scrutiny of intelligence with the creation of a parliamentary oversight committee in 1956, some considerable time before the creation of similar committees in the USA in 1976, and the UK in 1994.  The German oversight committee also has greater powers than its British counterpart. It is appointed by the Bundestag, has considerable powers of investigation including subpoena powers and the ability to determine the legality of intelligence activities, and almost uniquely amongst legislative oversight bodies, can investigate individual complaints made against the German intelligence agencies.  Although the British ISC has recently been reformed and acquired significant new powers of investigation, it remains to be seen what impact this will have on its oversight role, and the wider perception both of the agencies and the committee itself.

However, it is also notable that reform of the British intelligence and security agencies has largely been a response to external pressures, principally from Europe, rather than domestic concern. This is in contrast to many countries, including post-reunification Germany and also the USA, in which intelligence oversight was introduced or strengthened in response to well-publicised scandals involving the abuse of power by the intelligence agencies. In Britain, in contrast, legislation which put the agencies on a statutory footing and regulated their activities was a direct response to a series of adverse rulings by the European Court of Human Rights. Recent changes which strengthened  the oversight of intelligence were included in the Justice and Security Act as a means to sugar the pill of limiting the power of the Courts, while the emergency passage of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill was once again a response to a judgement emanating from Europe.

It has long been accepted that the operation of national intelligence agencies and their respective oversight bodies are in part defined by the political culture and constitutional arrangements of particular states.  What is interesting about the Snowden case and about Wilks-Heeg’s question, is that this political culture may also impact upon attitudes towards foreign intelligence agencies, and more particularly intelligence liaison. Both counter-intelligence and intelligence sharing have traditionally been the most secretive aspects of intelligence activities and primarily conducted by the agencies some way beyond external scrutiny. Recent events including the Snowden leaks and the revelations about the US renditon programme have placed intelligence relations between allies on the public and political agenda in Britain, Germany and elsewhere. The response may be more muted in Britain than elsewhere, but what may be seen as globalising tendencies in intelligence accountability is such that the results of investigations taking place elsewhere will have an impact here.

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