The Spies’ Charm Offensive: Insulting Our Intelligence?

In recent times, the heads of British spy agencies have taken to the media and social media to engage in Public Relations activities,[1] advertising particularly their role in protecting the public against ‘disinformation’. But what should the public make of this? Is this the proper role of intelligence agencies? Can they even really fulfil it?

There is an evident tension between spies’ necessary occupational readiness to deceive, on the one hand, and, on the other, a proclaimed mission to support the public in attaining reliable understandings of the world. In a best-case scenario, the attempted squaring of this circle would centre on educating the public about the ways and means availed of by malign actors to deceive them. Yet such public service would not extend to paying comparable attention to their own state’s deceptive activities; and nor would there be any meaningful way of ensuring that their educative practices themselves were not deceptive.

Nevertheless, in the UK today, the intelligence chiefs are evidently keen to declare a commitment to ethical principles. In his first speech as the current Head of MI6, Richard Moore stated the aim of recruiting only the ‘most ethically literate’ to the service. On Twitter, he has approved the message of the moral philosopher Cecile Fabre’s recent book that ‘spies must have an ethical compass’, and he has claimed that ‘Ethical principles infuse SIS operations, marking our difference from our adversaries.’ The MI6 in-house Ethics Counsellor, reviewing Fabre’s book, has publicly affirmed that many of those active in the UK intelligence community ‘take very seriously the ethical dimensions of their work.’

The Ethics Counsellor highlights Fabre’s claim that the question of “what one is morally permitted or obliged to do to reduce uncertainty” is at least as important as the question of “what one is morally permitted or obliged to do under conditions of uncertainty”. Although the thought here is focused on uncertainties that state actors need to deal with, the point is also relevant regarding uncertainties that are disruptive for democratic populations. For one of the core justifications offered for intelligence agencies participating in public communications is the importance of ensuring, in the words of GCHQ Head Jeremy Fleming (2022), that ‘disinformation campaigns’ aiming to ‘cause confusion’, ‘sow mistrust in information sources’, and ‘promulgate false narratives’ do not succeed. ‘The better the intelligence’, writes the MI6 counsellor, ‘the less the uncertainty and the more likely it is that the decision will be taken on sound moral grounds.’

Yet despite the superficial appeal of that proposition, it overlooks the inconvenient complexity of both knowledge and morality as well as of the connections between them. In reality – and this is very important for sincere public communicators to be aware of – a reduction of uncertainty is not an inevitable outcome of better intelligence. Sometimes better intelligence yields awareness of how a situation is altogether more complex and less certain than one might have imagined. Thus a very real problem that concerned citizens are alert to is the oversimplification imposed through narratives promulgated as ‘official stories’. The public would be better served by spy agencies sticking to conveying awareness of the deeper intelligence to those who need it, rather than getting involved in the public promulgation of superficial narratives that serve political interests.

In fact, the MI6 Ethics Counsellor has to point out that while Fabre’s book focuses on values, it ‘does not have much to say on the subject of interests – and as such it is too restrictive.’ For ‘the idea that one can ignore the latter is an illusion.’ The reality is that ‘intelligence agencies are tasked by their governments to promote the national interest as well as to defend core values’. From this it follows that ‘core values’ themselves are necessarily understood as consonant with ‘national interest’.

This non-negotiable commitment of the intelligence and security services will necessarily cut through any sophisticated debate about matters ethical or epistemological: what is to be declared by those services as right or true will never be contrary to what the government declares. The authority the services recognize as binding on them is political, not epistemic or ethical.

This is why they risk doing themselves discredit by engaging in communications in the public sphere, instead of sticking to secrecy. For if they come out publicly commenting on matters that the public – unlike them – is free to investigate, assess and discuss without inhibition, freely following evidence and argument where it leads, then they will sometimes be revealed to have a less persuasive case than the official adversary does. At that point, the domestic intelligence agencies must appear either incompetent or deceivers of the people they ostensibly serve.

But as well as this risk of insulting the intelligence services, there is a risk of insulting the intelligence of members of the public. This also arises in connection with the public pronouncements about democracy and the importance to it of free speech and a free press that flow quite readily from the Twitter feed of @ChiefMI6:

Freedom of press and expression is the cornerstone of a functioning democracy.’

Freedom of expression is the foundation of democracy’.

Freedom of press and access to a range of views are crucial in a democracy.’

Worthy as these statements in themselves are, the cast of mind actually operative in these utterances of them is glimpsed in Moore’s response to a tweet from a non-Brit who tells him “we don’t want your democracy”:

‘Not my democracy. Democratic standards represent universal values. Don’t you want those?’

What is revealed by this apparently knockdown retort is the occupational inability of a state official to accept that any specific meaning of democracy, and especially one claiming universality, can be contested. It is an inability that comes as a restrictive condition with the powers of the office, requiring a disavowal of something he would certainly have learned in principle as a student of PPE at Oxford and found amply confirmed in practice as a well-travelled diplomat. At a stroke, his tweet reveals the hollowness of public pronouncements avowing that a range of views is crucial in a democracy. It signals that the range is delimited and not up for discussion.

Similarly with the concept of freedom – another topic on which libraries of books have been written – Moore replies to the comment “We don’t want your freedom” by tweeting “Not my freedom; just freedom. It’s universal.” It would not reflect well on the Secret Intelligence Service’s commitment to ethical literacy if anyone believed its members thought matters were that simple. Such utterances must surely be counterproductive. For the value of participating in debate in social media comes from collaborative deliberation: the insertion of conversation stoppers like these is more likely to offend than to charm.

Also not up for discussion is what counts as disinformation. This is evident from examples of it that the secret service chiefs cite. For it is evident that they support the knowledge claims announced by their government, regardless of what their own undisclosed intelligence might teach them. So, for example, Richard Moore has cited these instances of ‘disinformation’:

‘the Kremlin has been using disinformation campaigns around the chemical weapons attack in Douma and the assassination attempt in Salisbury. The Salisbury attack saw the UK become the focus of a sustained disinformation campaign that saw over 30 different conspiracy theories sown by the Russian State directly or through its proxies.’

He does not categorically state that the UK’s version of either event was true, but he is clearly not going to say anything to the contrary – notwithstanding the serious questions identified by British citizens (on Douma; on Salisbury). He further comments:

‘We, along with our partners and allies, have to fight to ensure that facts are established, that disinformation is countered’.

With this emphasis on fighting rather than investigating he implicitly discloses his service’s real mission as public communicators: it is not to inform the public in the manner of an investigator or educator but to ensure dominance of a specific set of beliefs, regardless of whether they are true or false, and to do so by whatever means are necessary.

This is to engage in propaganda, and alert members of the public can see that.

But perhaps intelligence service chiefs underestimate the intelligence of ordinary members of the public. For instance, Ken McCallum, Head of MI5, expressing his pride at the UK’s part ‘in calling out disinformation attempts’, adds a mention of ‘recent Russian public statements pointed at the UK which’, he says, ‘include silly claims, such as alleging UK involvement in attacking the Nord Stream pipelines’. While those claims might be mistaken, there is enough information available to the public through other channels to show that they are not just ‘silly’. But ensuring deference to the official story is an obligation of the secret services in any public utterance they make. This is one reason why critics believe the secret services’ involvement in the sphere of public communications should be minimised or eliminated, not expanded. Another concerns the hollowness of professed commitments to the crucial value of a free press. For example, in the Salisbury case, the press was prevented by a “D(SMA) notice” from revealing the details about Sergei Skripal’s MI6 handler and his connections to the Steele dossier which was at the centre of the Russiagate affair. More insidiously and more generally, intelligence influence over the reporting of the mainstream media appears extensive and often deleterious.

It falls to the MI6 Ethics Counsellor to make explicit the bottom line:

‘intelligence agencies are tasked to defend the national interest for its own sake, against others who do not share the same values. … ultimately, we have to know which side we are on and what we are prepared to fight for.’

Our side, right or wrong, is the allegiance of the intelligence services; and to fight is their commitment.

But the most important question then is: whose side exactly is that? Consider, for instance, in 2019 many British citizens thought – and probably still do today – that the then-prime ministerial candidate Jeremy Corbyn was on their side. Yet the intelligence services united with the military and the Conservative Party in a massive smear campaign against him, and one which involved no shortage of disinformation, to help ensure that he did not attain power within the British state (see Matt Kennard 2019). He – and his supporters who similarly prioritised justice and peace over the interests of corporations and the military industrial complex – were assigned a status equivalent to adversaries by our security services. This provided a chilling reminder that those services are there to serve the state – and whether that state is democratic at all is not a matter they are in reality required to care about, no matter what they might tweet.

In fact, notwithstanding the public-facing efforts of intelligence chiefs to associate their services with ideas of transparency and democratic accountability, and even judging them by the restricted conception of democracy embodied in the institutions of the British state, our intelligence services come up short. The 2021-22 report of the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee has found that not only are the key agencies mentioned above rather desultory in reporting to it but, more importantly, a whole raft of additional intelligence activities aimed at influencing public opinion have now been devolved to new government policy units which are not even included in the oversight arrangements.

We cannot realistically expect the intelligence agencies to seek improved democratic oversight of their own activities, even if we would wish it. We cannot expect them to be supporting communications critical of government, even if a commitment to truth would require it. We can expect them to do what is necessary in their covert operations, and we can hope they are indeed ‘ethically literate’, but we have also to recognize that their occupation inescapably involves dirty work – which is why ethics counsellors are needed.

An alert public is not likely to trust them the more for trying to distract the public from these realities. So in trying to fathom the point of the intelligence chiefs’ charm offensive, we are left with an abiding concern: do they actually consider the alert section of the public to be on their ‘same side’?

[1] ‘Heads of the intelligence Agencies are increasingly making appearances in the media, with a far higher profile than their predecessors. Recent examples of this include the Director-General MI5’s interview in the Daily Mail newspaper about his career, the Director GCHQ’s interview and podcast features in The Times, and the Chief of SIS’s Twitter account. While the majority of media is undertaken by the heads of the organisations, there have also been anonymised interviews with more junior staff. For example, The Daily Telegraph published an interview with MI5’s Director K, and the Sunday Times featured interviews with a number of junior GCHQ staff. This is a clear step-change for the Agencies, who have traditionally shied away from such exposure – particularly of junior staff.’ ISC report 2021-22

This entry was posted in constitutional politics, disinformation, free intelligence, Intelligence and Security Services, media, political philosophy, propaganda, UK Government, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Spies’ Charm Offensive: Insulting Our Intelligence?

  1. Ronald C Watson says:

    Mr. Hayward ( Professor ? )
    Why the hell would you ask me to comment( not specifically me ) when you did not publish my well written ( I considered it well written and to the point ) regarding your Post ” Questioning the Official Story ” without so much as a explanation. You then did not reply to my Email to you about this matter as well !
    You Sir can go to hell since your lack of MANNERS and obvious penchant for CENSORSHIP comes through loud and clear.
    …. Ron Watson

    • timhayward says:

      Well, I’m afraid I haven’t seen an email, but I do apologise for being lax at attending to the moderation of comments.

      • Ronald C Watson says:

        Mr. Hayward,
        I see you have finally published my comment regarding : ” Questioning The Official Story … ” ” Well, I’m afraid I haven’t seen an email, but I do apologise for being lax at attending to the moderation of comments. ” Is that YOUR official story ?? Apology accepted.
        Regards, … Ron Watson

  2. Great post as always, thanks. I don’t think the “intelligence services” work for Britain, 5 eyes work for the globalists. Their role has become blurred.
    btw try substack for blogging as well, they have some good features.

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