The UK Daily Mail has kicked up a nice fuss with an editorial that describes rival The Guardian as 'The paper that helps Britain's enemies'.

Why? Because earlier this week the head of MI5, Britain's domestic spy agency, gave a speech in which, without naming The Guardian or whistleblower Edward Snowden, he claimed that publicising the capabilities and reach of intelligence agencies (such as MI5's counterpart, the signals intelligence agency known as GCHQ) helped the terrorists:

We are facing an international threat and GCHQ provides many of the intelligence leads upon which we rely. It makes a vital contribution to most of our high priority investigations. It causes enormous damage to make public the reach and limits of GCHQ techniques. Such information hands the advantage to the terrorists. It is the gift they need to evade us and strike at will. Unfashionable as it might seem, that is why we must keep secrets secret, and why not doing so causes such harm.

The Guardian has rounded up a bunch of leading editors from around the world to respond to the Daily Mail's editorial.

What the debate basically comes down to is a dispute over where to draw the line between security and personal freedom. It's hard to imagine that anyone in Britain's security world wants an Orwell-like surveillance state (MI5 chief Andrew Parker acknowledges in his speech that 'We do not want all-pervasive, oppressive security apparatus'), and just as hard to believe that most editors would favour the wholesale abandonment of spying to prevent terrorism. They just disagree about where to land in between those two extremes.

Two quotes from the collected editorials stand out for me, the first from Slate's Jacob Weisberg:

Over and again, one is struck by how poorly Americans' interests have been served by secrecy – and by the folly, misjudgment, and abuse of power that might have been prevented by public knowledge...Editors must weigh the potential security harm of public revelation again the certain damage to democratic accountability that comes from a public kept in the dark. It bears noting that in historical terms, the downside of disclosure has been very small, while the cost of secrecy has been enormous.

The second comes from the New York Times' Bill Keller:

...the question I would pose to citizens of free societies, and in particular to editors who join governments in denouncing the careful publication of secrets: which of the recent stories would you prefer not to know? Would you prefer not to be told how questionable intelligence led the United States and its allies into a misbegotten war in Iraq? Would you prefer to be ignorant of the existence of secret prisons, and the practice of torture? Would you really rather not know the extent of eavesdropping by governments or private contractors, and the safeguards or lack of safeguards against abuses of these powers? Democracy rests on the informed consent of the governed. Editors' highest responsibility is to assure that it is as informed as possible.

Yes, journalism plays a key role, but so does the public. Here it's worth quoting again from Parker's speech:

In one sense counter terrorism is an extraordinary proposition. Let me say what I mean. Terrorism, because of its nature and consequences, is the one area of crime where the expectation sometimes seems to be that the stats should be zero.

Zero. Imagine applying the same target to murder in general, or major drugs trafficking. That is the stuff of 'pre-crime' in the Tom Cruise movie 'Minority Report'. Life is not the movies. In a free society 'zero' is of course impossible to achieve in the face of persistent and serious threats - though we will keep stretching for it. The utter unacceptability of terrorism is the reason why so much effort is rightly devoted to intelligence work to detect plans and thwart plots before they occur.

But who is responsible for that 'expectation of zero?' I would argue that it is our political leaders, who take their cues from the public. Until we tell our political leaders that we are prepared to tolerate a higher level of risk in order to continue enjoying privacy and other freedoms, we have only ourselves to blame for the creeping intrusions of the intelligence agencies.

Photo by Flickr user jeffschuler.