Themistocles grinned; it made me like him. “There you see it – that’s how we do it here. Among you Medes, I’m told, there are many men so honorable that everyone trusts them. We’re not like that at all – we never trust one another. So what we do instead is make sure that each side’s represented, so that every rascal’s got two worse looking over his shoulder.”
Gene Wolfe, Soldier of Arete.
I’ve always liked those words, put into the mouth of Themistocles by Gene Wolfe. Soldier of Arete is one of my favourite books – giving a very different perspective on the Ancient Greeks. Wolfe tries (and for me succeeds) to give a sense of what life might really have been like – not a place of divine nobility or unattainable grace, but a place inhabited by real people. Themistocles was one of the most successful of Athenian generals and politicians – someone around at the early days of what we these days call democracy. Wolfe’s version of Themistocles is a very much a likeable character, and a very grounded one. His view of democracy, of honour and of trust is one that seems both very real and very appropriate even for these days. Honour and trust are all very well, but for things to work well, we always need someone looking over people’s shoulders.
That’s particularly relevant to surveillance. ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’, to borrow another classical source. Who watches the watchmen? At the Intelligence and Security Committee ’round table’ sessions on Tuesday (about which I wrote here) it was one of the key issues – as were the issues of honour and trust. The first question that Sir Malcolm Rifkind asked at our table was whether we thought the intelligence services acted with ‘good faith’. I understood him to mean, essentially, whether we trusted them. Whether we thought they were honourable people. My answer was that I did think they were acting in good faith – but that that is not enough. I’m not like the Mede with which Themistocles was talking in Soldier of Arete, who thought some people are so honourable that they can be trusted completely. Good faith is a good start, but it’s not nearly enough. Limits on surveillance, controls, balances and strong oversight are still needed, no matter whether the intelligence services are acting in ‘good faith;’, and regardless of whether they are honourable, trustworthy people. Even the most able and honourable people need to be overseen. They make mistakes. They can be misled. They can be confused. They can be given poor information and make inappropriate decisions. And are we sure they are honourable and acting in good faith? It doesn’t matter if almost all of them are – even a single person who isn’t and is given free rein is capable of creating a disaster.
That’s not to say, of course, that trust isn’t important. At a certain level, we have to trust people – human life would be impossible if we didn’t. In things like surveillance, that trust, however, needs to be earned. It needs to be demonstrated that people are worthy of what trust we give them – and right now, after the Snowden revelations, trust in the intelligence services is in a great deal of doubt. It needs to be rebuilt – and that means much more transparency is needed to start with, but also much more understanding. It needs to be made clear that those in authority understand why people are bothered by this. It means that they need take our worries and concerns seriously.
Right now, too, it means that they can’t expect us to take what they tell us on trust. It means there should be a little more humility, a little more of what might be called ‘grace’. The way that the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIP) was steamrollered through parliament this summer showed none of this. The reverse: it showed contempt for people, and a huge amount of disrespect. The whole process, rather than helping to rebuild the trust, to demonstrate the good faith, to show that they are honourable people, reduced that trust, demonstrated bad faith, and suggested that they are far from honourable. And that goes for the ‘honourable members’ of parliament and for the intelligence services who presumably suggested the bill. I say ‘presumably’, because we really don’t know, and never got the chance to find out. Sir Malcolm Rifkind admitted on Tuesday that he didn’t understand RIPA: how many of the MPs who passed DRIP understood what they were passing? My guess is that they ‘trusted’ the people telling them it was needed, and decided that was enough.
Well, for me it wasn’t. Not nearly enough. We need much more – and I’m waiting.