Total surveillance: the good, the bad, and the downright cringe-worthy

Whenever lawyer turned Guardian investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald has appeared on the devil’s lightbox or in print, I have tended to either switch off or endure the spectacle while gritting my teeth. It is a serious subject, total surveillance carried out by spy agencies such as America’s NSA and Britain’s GCHQ, but in the public debate surrounding it there is much hysteria and hyperbole, and it is drowning out the facts. Greenwald has contributed to this, but then the spectacle is all part an effective journalistic strategy in which he is a key player.

Yesterday on BBC Newsnight, Greenwald was interviewed at length by presenter Kirsty Walk, and I have to say that, much to my surprise, he totally owned the event. Walk is a highly respected political journalist and tough interviewer, but on this occasion she was woefully unprepared for the Greenwald interview, and embarrassed herself in short order. Greenwald, on the other hand, was sharp and incisive, and took no prisoners.

Greenwald was interviewed via video link from his home in Brazil, and in the Newsnight studio we had Pauline Neville-Jones, a former chair of the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee, who was even less prepared for the encounter than Walk. The third interviewee was openDemocracy founder Anthony Barnett, but I’m not at all sure what he said, if anything.

Neville-Jones had me laughing uproariously in contempt, so pathetic were her arguments. Faced with a simple explanation from Greenwald about the nature of 4096-bit encryption, and how it is virtually impossible for the Russians to have decrypted their guest political refugee Edward Snowden’s files, the noble Baroness was reduced to saying that she simply didn’t believe Greenwald, and that the Russians are clever chaps.

All this would be amusing if it were not for the fact that Neville-Jones once held a very senior position in Britain’s military intelligence establishment, and to this day remains close to that community. What if anything does her manifest incompetence say about those currently in charge of the UK’s spooks?

I think we should be told, but of course the government will insist that it never comments publicly on intelligence matters.

From the ridiculous to the sublime, I end this Friday afternoon post with a link to a more considered comment on multi-acronym-spy-gate. In the Guardian, novelist and journalist John Lanchester looks at the substance of the GCHQ scandal, and tells us why we really should be concerned.