Whitehouse wiretap smear: GCHQ has reaped what it has sown

One thing I like to do on this blog is note the small and less spectacular effects of human rights violations on our democracy.

Too often, when we discuss government wrong-doing, or some power-grabbing piece of legislation, we speak in grand terms about how it could lead to the breakdown of democracy and the onset of totalitarianism. We always talk about the end state—Nineteen Eighty-Four, usually—which conveys the implicit message that the way-points in that journey are not terrible in-and-of themselves.

The Whitehouse has just provided us with a real-life example of how human rights violations by governments can cause damage. They recently recently accused GCHQ of facilitating surveillance of him during the presidential election period.

GCHQ have taken the unusual step of contradicting the President’s claims.

But how was the Trump administration able to repeat such a grand and conspiratorial claim in the first place? Because GCHQ has a track record of abusing our trust and circumventing democratic standards. It took the Snowden leaks to reveal the widespread use of surveillance techniques, which had never been subjected to proper parliamentary oversight. GCHQ (and their NSA counterparts in the USA) were caught out doing things for which they should have sought democratic approval.

They abused our trust and undermined human rights. And now someone who seeks to undermine democracy further, who seeks to make us paranoid and distrustful of our institutions, is exploiting that fact. 

In the long term, this is a more serious problem than short term loss of surveillance capabilities. More serious, even, than individual terrorist attacks taking place.

When institutions (especially the security services and armed forces) abuse the trust placed in them, they become brittle. They expose them themselves to conspiracy theorists, cranks and demagogues. By contrast, an accountable and transparent institution actually accrues power and prestige, which can provide an effective shield against those who seek to undermine it.

An organisation that had never transgressed our rights would never have been subjected to the humiliating accusations levelled at GCHQ last week. The agency—and the rest of us—are now paying the price for their earlier short-cuts.

These events are not part of some malevolent conspiracy. They would not make for a particularly exciting Hollywood film. No-one has been murdered or falsely imprisoned during this spat. But it is still an incredibly damaging set of events, happening in plain sight, that could lead to worse outcomes in the future.


This post was prompted by a Quora answer I wrote.

Read Robert Sharp's answer to What do British citizens think about President Donald Trump's GCHQ Trump Tower spying claims? on Quora

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