There is “a very grave danger” of a terrorist attack over the Christmas season, our commissar-like Home Secretary John Reid solemnly warns us. The security services have been put on second-highest level alert. Instead of basting her domestic turkey, our National Matron, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller [known to some, as her highly unpleasant father, Lord Chancellor Viscount Dilhorne, also was, as “Bullying Manner”], will be careering around potential trouble spots, damping down smouldering Islamic resentment with a hearty dollop of Christian Christmas cheer.
Haven’t we heard all this before? Didn’t Dame Eliza’s outfit cause unprecedented chaos at Heathrow with a wildly exaggerated scare a few months ago? And wasn’t it her predecessor who assured our Dear Leader that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction capable of obliterating Whitehall at 45 minutes’ notice?
So we give a weary shrug, and bite into another mince pie. Trouble is, though, WAS the Heathrow scare wildly exaggerated? Is this one? How shall we ever know? The security services are damned as scaremongers if they succeed in foiling a terrorist plot, and damned even more vehemently if they fail and an atrocity occurs. Being a spook is very hard cheese.
It also has an element of the improbable, and even the comic, about it. Visions of tweedy pipe-smoking men in deer-stalker hats sidling furtively into Shepherd Market pubs to rendezvous with their sleeper-contacts spring to mind with an irresistibly Ealing Comedy flavour. My own only [known] experience of being “fingered” as a possible recruit had a comic opera atmosphere. I was summoned to a
My worry as a citizen about the security services is, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? If they spy on us, who keeps effective tabs on them? How real is ministerial responsibility, or are they pretty much a law unto themselves? If so, as seems quite likely, how balanced are their judgements and how effective their operations? What little leaks out about them does not give great cause for confidence. Politically, a lot of their operatives seem liable to hold views rather to the right of Genghis Khan, if such anecdotal memoirs as Peter Wright’s Spycatcher is anything to go by. [I suspect that the real reason why Margaret Thatcher fought so strenuously to prevent publication of that rather trivial and faintly absurd little book was because of the Neanderthal attitudes it revealed.] Operationally, we of course cannot be sure, but an extract I read recently from a book by an agent who had been sent to Pakistan to infiltrate Al Qaeda’s leadership did not inspire confidence in the insight and competence of his handlers.
I’m sure there are real threats, and I am hesitantly prepared to give Dame Eliza and Co the benefit of the doubt as they go about their spooky tasks.
But I sometimes wish she would send for Richard Hannay.