The 9/11 Reading List: British Security

Michael Clarke reviews 'Securing the State' by David Omand

Michael Clarke reviews
Securing the State
By David Omand
Hurst and Co, 2010

People are fascinated by intelligence, generally because they think it is uniquely glamorous or uniquely sinister. Or for some, it is an Evelyn Waugh world of the ruthless British amateur, as dangerous to our own interests as to those of our adversaries. And, for the sceptics of the intelligence community, there have been plenty of recent embarrassments to nurture the image. Sir David Omand has lived through some of the most dramatic years of our century at the heart of UK intelligence and governmental co-ordination, and he offers his experience and judgements here to help us situate the business of intelligence within government as a whole. Not surprisingly, the spectres of the 9/11 attacks, the US War on Terror and the decisions to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan make frequent appearances throughout his account. He is at pains to point out that the challenges and choices for the intelligence professional that all these events have posed in recent years are not conceptually new and have been intrinsic to the intelligence business throughout the ages. They represent a modern version of the classic intelligence trade-offs between freedom and security.

The challenges for our intelligence community, of course, go a good way beyond the dramatic events of the last decade. There will always be nasty surprises, and good intelligence can only mitigate their effects. It cannot stop them happening. There is a big difference, too, between tactical and strategic surprise for any government. No one could have predicted at the tactical level that, on 17 December last year, the self-immolation of a Tunisian market trader who had the wrong paperwork would spark the Twitter-led series of public protests that is destabilising – or else certainly frightening – autocratic regimes throughout the Middle East and North Africa. But it should not be a strategic surprise that so many brittle governments in the region have no plan B to deal with public protest. No one could have predicted exactly how a crisis in Kosovo would be sparked in 1999, but it was no strategic surprise that Kosovo would eventually be a defining moment in any implosion in former Yugoslavia. Governments can normally be forgiven for being tactically surprised; we ask only how quickly they can react. But it is hard to forgive some of the strategic surprises of recent years: the failure to anticipate the precipitate collapse of Communist Europe and the demise of the Soviet Union; the attraction of the ‘global caliphate’ movement that has provided such a large, if shallow, pool for Al-Qa’ida recruitment since the early 1990s; the shock of the world economic recession and its burgeoning global political consequences. Good strategic analysis – intelligence in its widest sense – is at the heart of the real intelligence challenges that David Omand addresses. It is all part of a much more inclusive approach to intelligence requirements that he outlines here.

He provides a masterly account of both the principles and the practice of good intelligence, necessarily synonymous these days with ‘good government’ as a whole. He draws on deep historical knowledge and a fascination with renaissance government to make his points. The security challenges we face are a mixture of the new – failed states, environmental pressures, jihadist terrorism, organised crime and so on – and the traditional, in the unceasing competition for power and influence among the major states of the world. But he is keen to point out how the notion of the state and modern society is also changing radically. The domain of cyberspace and all the protected individual information contained within it, together with the social networking phenomenon of the last six years, are all threats as well as useful weapons in the protection of the UK’s state interests. The need for the modern Prince to balance both freedom and security may go back to Machiavelli, but the context in which those balances have to be struck are well beyond even Machiavelli’s imaginings, even if we could guess what his Facebook page might say. We have to move, says David Omand, from the notion of the ‘secret state’ – barely questioned during the Cold War – to the ‘protecting state’ that will equip us for the multi-centric future. Achieving this will not be easy. In addition to doing all the basics of the intelligence function to a higher standard than we have recently let ourselves accept, the system has to become far more inclusive. It means creating ever-widening circles of trust from the intelligence and security professionals to all other agencies of government and the policy community. It means using open-source information much more extensively, drawing in external analysis more systematically. Above all, it requires public participation in understanding the function of the intelligence community inside modern – good – government.

There is a paradox here that the author finds interesting. So much of our daily lives and our patterns of behaviour are evident within our protected personal information – all electronically held. Our social networking opens us to even more detailed scrutiny. Already, marketing devices trawl the Facebook generation to make them instant offers when they choose to tell a few hundred of their closest friends that they are tired, moving house or depressed. Mass, intrusive information is extremely valuable. If the state had legal access to it, it could identify those of genuine interest to the security services and be far less intrusive in the lives of everyone else. This is increasingly the grand bargain that modern society will be facing says David Omand, and it will be a true test of what we mean by ‘good government’ to encapsulate within it good and effective intelligence and security services. Give us access to your daily lives in a spirit of mutual trust, the government will offer, and we can leave the vast majority of you alone, and thereby give you higher levels of both security and freedom. Machiavelli has had a bad press over recent centuries, but he may well have paused on that one for a while.

It is not entirely clear whether the author is relaxed about this choice, or merely pointing out that he thinks we will arrive at it sooner or later. At a time when some writers are exploring the limits to rationalism in modern government, he appears to have a great deal of faith in the ability of a governing system to take a highly rational approach to policy and not misuse its power, even under pressure. Perhaps that is the distinguished civil servant coming out in him. Nevertheless, David Omand has written a fascinating and important book that sets the world of intelligence within a much wider debate about the relationship between the citizen and the state, as it traditionally has been for the last half a millennium, and as it will be for the next few years at least. It is a challenging argument, as well as a checklist of what intelligence professionals should anyway be doing. It will doubtless be read by those who want to know how the system works, and they will not be disappointed.

But it ought to be read by those who want to know how the system should work. They will not be disappointed either; but they may be somewhat disconcerted. After the last decade, that is probably a good thing.

Professor Michael Clarke is the Director of RUSI

This book review was first published in the RUSI Journal (Vol. 156, No. 2, April/May 2011).


Professor Michael Clarke

Distinguished Fellow

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