GCHQ: Doing its job

There are two amusing things about the revelations (which have not been denied) that GCHQ, the UK’s communications intelligence organisation, spied on delegates to the London G20 summit in 2009.

The first is that it’s a valuable corrective to governments, and their media cheerleaders, who tell us that intelligence agencies exist only to “keep us safe” and “warn about threats”. This channelling of Thomas Hobbes is understandable as a way of maintaining public support for these large, expensive organisations, but of course it’s completely removed from the reality of why intelligence agencies exist, and how they function.

The second is that, ironically, the story shows just why intelligence agencies do exist, and how they do function. They exist to get hold of information that governments need to do their jobs, and that they cannot obtain in any other way. So when the British government organised the G20 summit, it wanted to know more about the objectives and tactics of some key players, and how they thought the negotiations were proceeding. It also wanted to know what the various parties were saying to each other bilaterally, and indeed what they were saying to their own governments about all sorts of unrelated questions.

This makes perfect sense, and nobody should be surprised. Those who were spied on in London must have expected something like this to happen, and should have taken precautions to minimise the risks.

It would be better of both those who romanticise intelligence, and those who demonise it, simply understood it for what it was: a way of improving a government’s understanding of the world, no more, no less.


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