IF there’s anything we’ve learned from horrors like the nightclub shootings in Orlando, the truck attack in Nice, and the beheading of a priest in St-Étienne-du-Rouvray, it’s that our security services are far from perfect.
We have learned, for example, that Adel Kermiche, one of the killers of Father Jacques Hamel, wore an electronic tag because he had been recognised as potentially dangerous, but a judge had allowed it to be turned off for four hours, time Kermiche used to murder the priest.
Clearly, there is no obvious path to ensure security for European or North American states, currently the targets of choice for jihadists. But what we’re seeing now is a shift in attitudes toward intelligence-gathering services.
“Public opinion in Belgium, France and other European countries threatened by jihadist attacks has swung dramatically toward security,” write two US security experts, Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense, and Adam Klein, of the Center for a New American Security in Foreign Affairs.
The attitude we in free societies take toward the security agencies is a critical part of our security. In the past year, while researching Journalism in a Time of Terror, an upcoming book for the Reuters Institute, I interviewed past heads of the West’s three main external intelligence services: John McLaughlin, head of the CIA (briefly); Pierre Brochand of the French DGSE, and Sir John Scarlett of the UK’s MI6. All stressed their agencies’ adhesion to democratic norms — necessary, in their views, for their existence.
McLaughlin agrees that the secret services fit awkwardly into democracies, but says it is clear that they are necessary to protect democratic practices. Yet, observing that leaks and revelations have caused large expense and disruption, he ended by asking the news media, a little despairingly, “How hard do you want my job to be?” Scarlett also asked a rhetorical question. When pressed on the potential the services had for suborning democratic life, he asked, “Who would do it? Where do we get our staff? The same, generally liberal society as anyone else.”
Brochand, in the French tradition of the intellectual as state official, said that the DGSE he commanded from 2002-2009 suffered from a lack of trust, and “if you think about it, the sole real asset of an intelligence service is its credibility, which stems from trust.” Society has become “individualistic” and has called for “transparency” everywhere, even in services that could not grant it. “We tried to show [journalists] we were not the monsters they expected us to be, but devoted professionals, doing our best in a difficult world.”
There are differing ways to react to terrorist violence. They range from Donald Trump’s demand — based on his belief that one in four Muslims are violent jihadists — that Muslim entry into the US be temporarily suspended, to German chancellor Angela Merkel’s flat refusal to close the door on refugees. From Catholics and Muslims coming together in Rouen Cathedral to mourn the murder of Father Hamel, to a crowd in Nice booing French prime minister Manuel Valls after a minute’s silence for the 87-year-old killed by an Islamic State supporter who drove a truck through the city’s crowded oceanfront promenade.
Separation and inclusion; forgiveness and anger. The attitudes presently co-exist, but there’s little doubt that the separation-anger response will win out if the spate of violence that marked July in France and Germany continues, and grows worse.
The French National Assembly’s commission of inquiry into the November 13 attacks in Paris — after six months of hearings, debate, and drafting — harshly criticised the “superabundance of acronyms” that characterise the country’s many security services. It called for a streamlined, centralised and more powerful security organisation. The head of the external security service, Bernard Bajolet, conceded that the November 13 Paris attacks, in which some 130 were killed, showed failures of both his own and the internal service for failing to pick up either the foreign or the domestic signs of the planning for the massacre.
The German government’s attitude of continued openness has had strong public support but is dependent on an abatement of terrorist incidents. Even now, the right-wing, anti-immigrant groups Pegida and Alternativ fur Deuschland are organising rallies, though substantial rather than huge. Meanwhile, allies within Merkel’s own governing party — such as Joachim Herrmann, the Bavarian interior minister — argue that “there can no longer be uncontrolled entry into the country”. Merkel’s is a gamble on patience, decency and, above all, luck.
The suspicion and anger shown, especially in Germany, after the publication of Edward Snowden leaks on US spying is now much diminished. European states, including Germany, have quietly admitted that they have sought to bug US officials and institutions as assiduously as Washington had bugged theirs; and that, in hunting down those whom they believe pose risks, they ask for information gathered by the National Security Agency.
We can now assume the seriousness of the militants’ ambitions; their possible acquisition of weapons of mass destruction; the attraction they have for some, especially young Muslim men, and their deliberate efforts to worsen relations between the settled and recent immigrant populations. As Philip Bobbitt has written, “terrorism itself might become a threat to the legitimacy of those states that depend upon the consent of the governed”. We need to enfold the secret services, in the front line against that threat, fully and explicitly within the institutions of the democratic state. The relationship between them and civil society will, and should, be at times scratchy. But they are as important as a free press.