The Anglo-Saxons love of secrets … and a good fight

August 6, 2015
A detail from graffiti art is seen on a wall near the headquarters of Britain's eavesdropping agency, GCHQ, in Cheltenham, western England

A detail from graffiti art is seen on a wall near the headquarters of Britain’s eavesdropping agency, Government Communications Headquarters, in Cheltenham, England, April 16, 2014. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh

Continental Europeans — French, Germans, Italians and others — often call the Anglophone peoples “Anglo-Saxons.” Derived from the name of a medieval people in England (partly composed of German tribes, ironically) whose culture dominated from the 5th to the 11th century, the term was revived in the 19th century, often in a self serving form to affirm the superiority of white British imperialists over the people of color, whom they ruled.

Now it refers to all English-speaking peoples — especially the Americans. It can be used neutrally, enviously and sometimes even affectionately, but it’s more often a pejorative. Jean Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, gave a display of its more common use in May, when he accused the Anglo-Saxons of hovering like vultures over the euro crisis, waiting to revel in its failure.

A French scholar at Cambridge, Emile Chabal, wrote that the French often use it negatively. He quotes a French writer, Paul Bourget, who reports a conversation he had with an American who said “What do you want? We Anglo-Saxons, we like a fight… we like it in our politics… we like it in our companies,” in his 1921 book “Overseas: Notes on America”

I had thought such stuff exaggerated, a symptom of prejudices old and new. But a scandal just broken in Germany made me think that perhaps we “Anglo-Saxons” do like a fight.

A German judge, Harald Range, opened a case earlier this year against two journalists, Markus Beckerdahl and Andre Moister, who run a website called Netzpolitik. They twice posted major leaks from the German secret services. One showed that a fund had been set aside to increase electronic surveillance, the other publicized plans developed by the agencies to monitor social media. The prospective charge was “treachery.”

Last week, the case broke out into the open when the government asked Range to drop one of his investigators. Range objected, saying such political interference was “intolerable.” The justice minister, Heiko Maas, fired him, while affirming the right of journalists to dig and to publish.

The Anglo-Saxons do such things differently. The man who leaked the U.S. diplomatic cables and much else to Wikileaks, Bradley, now Chelsea, Manning got 30 years. The man who downloaded as many as 1.7 million documents from the U.S. National Security Agency, Edward Snowden, remains in Russia because, he believes, he will get similar treatment if he returns to the United States. The British services, whose secrets he also stole are just as vengeful. So are three other states — Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all part of an intelligence sharing group called the “Five Eyes” — and Anglo-Saxons all. No Latins, Teutons, Africans, Asians and certainly no Slavs need apply.

The German government, and the Anglo-Saxons, faced a dilemma. The default position of any serious secret service is secrecy — for the very good reason that a service that acquires the reputation of being leaky will not attract informants who risk their lives in contacting the agencies. The governments created, sustain and are lately expanding the powers of their security agencies, and of course support them, often lavishing praise on their courage and dedication.

Democratic governments also support free news media, and also lavish praise on them as an indispensable part of a democratic state. Yet the default position of the news media is to get secrets and publish them. And this difference between the two trades of spying and journalism, and the dilemma for governments, is the greater now because of the growth of the capacity of the agencies, and the greater threats that they believe they face. These are both old, from Russia; and new, from violent jihadist groups.

Never, outside of war, have the secret services been so powerful, and never has it been more important to them to keep their secrets secret. Yet never, in the history of journalism, has it been so urgent that some account be made of their use of that power, simply because it is so large and so potentially oppressive.

It is a simplification, but not too much of one, to say that the Germans have solved this one way, the Anglo-Saxons the other. Germany’s attachment to democratic practice, the greater because of a Nazi past, trumped the suspicions and zeal of Harald Range. He has been quoted as saying that “freedom of the press is valuable, but not limitless.” His government came down closer to the limitless than the merely valuable.

The Anglo-Saxons go for the “valuable.” In interviews with ex-secret service officers in the UK and the United States for a book on journalism and security, I have been made aware that they don’t much rate the German secret services.

“They’ve been penetrated,” said one. “They’re all over the place,” said another — both, of course, off the record. Their belief is that if a country is to have a serious secret service, it must be kept secret, its ability to monitor communications, spy, burgle, cheat and lie accepted without too much demur. Those institutions set up to regulate the service must themselves be largely secret and must report only part of what they know. In the end, they believe, the state and the citizens must just trust that the services won’t turn rogue, will obey the laws that govern them and will not become an ally of political extremism.

This, the ex-officers believe, is the necessary bedrock for serious security. All else is chatter. The Germans — who hold their agencies in nothing like the high regard granted to the Anglo-Saxons’ services — don’t agree. They have certainly liked to fight in the past. Now, their attachment to democratic practice, transparency and avoidance of war is set much higher.

The Anglo-Saxons, who had been leery of a fight in the past, now think they need strong, silent services to help them fight. These attitudes are changeable and recent, but for the present, they mark a difference. The Anglo-Saxons, for now, like a fight, and protect the services which will help them have one, if it comes to that.

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Of course, all those Germans who do love secrecy use Swiss bank accounts. The Swiss, in their turn, prosecute anyone who leaks details of those accounts.

It’s all a question of priorities…..

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive