Obama’s NSA review gives the lie to Britain’s timid platitudes: a debate is possible

What a relief. It is, after all, possible to discuss the operations of modern intelligence agencies without having to prove one’s patriotism, be turned over by the police, summoned by politicians or visited by state-employed technicians with instructions to smash up one’s computers.

The 300-page report into the Guardian’s revelations about the US National Security Agency commissioned by President Obama and published this week is wide-ranging, informed and thoughtful. It leaps beyond the timid privacy-versus-national security platitudes which have stifled so much of the debate in the UK. It doesn’t blame journalism for dragging the subject into the open: it celebrates it.

The five authors of the report are not hand-wringing liberals. They number one former CIA deputy director; a counter-terrorism adviser to George W Bush and his father; two former White House advisers; and a former dean of the Chicago law school. Not what the British prime minister would call “airy-fairy lah-di-dah” types.

Six months ago the British cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, was in the Guardian’s London office telling us there had been “enough” debate on the matter of what intelligence agencies got up to. But here are Obama’s experts revelling in the debate; exploring the tensions between privacy and national security, yes — but going much further, discussing cryptology; civil liberties; the right of citizens and governments to be informed; relationships with other countries; and the potential damage that unconstrained espionage can cause to trade, commerce and the digital economy.

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