Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed 27 September 2013
Not long after the imposing SIS building designed by Terry Farrell was erected on the banks of the Thames in 1994 to house the British overseas intelligence agency MI6, I got to spend 11 years happily working in a office warehouse across the road.
Pre-millennium property boom, this quarter of London at Vauxhall despite being a major transport hub not far from the Oval cricket ground, was something of an interesting but neglected backwater. There was little to do at lunchtime. So it was that an entrepreneur’s decision to locate a sightseeing balloon in the green space next to the station caused much excitement and regular office trips to view the river from the vantage point of the MI6 building.
Unfortunately in 2000, a member of a dissident IRA faction decided to take a pot shot at the MI6 building with a rocket propelled grenade launcher from the local park. Not coincidentally, the balloon rides closed down around this time. Perhaps inevitably, given that our own business revolved around closely reading annual reports of publicly listed companies for nuggets of saleable analysis and we were practiced in developing and selling innovative databases, an occasional office pastime involved speculating about the office habits of neighbouring MI6 workers.
A slightly self-aggrandising consensus emerged that much of MI6’s work revolved around desk work and analysis of often publicly available information sources, not unlike our own. Certainly, we were clear that the domestic security service MI5 across the river closer to Westminster, probably had a more exciting time emulating Special Branch and keeping individuals under surveillance, but most real life counterparts of James Bond at MI6 would, we felt, have been more akin to desk bound librarians rather than the famous fictional assassin.
Somewhat gratifyingly, Wikileaks revelations with their labyrinths of sensational information, stored amid mundane excel style databases, suggest that we may have been along the right lines. Not that such calculations had any impact on the ever sharp producers of the world’s most successful film franchise, who have successfully managed to continually reinterpret the same basic format over a 50-year period. For them, the landmark Vauxhall building has been a godsend, which they have featured prominently in successive films.
One increasingly apparent feature of the series is that the American family of producers who zealously guard their stewardship of the James Bond character, has gone increasingly “native.” Much less emphasis is given these days to Americans riding to the rescue with back-up and firepower to help the British hero. Indeed in the last film but one, “Quantum of Solace,” the villain planned not to destroy the world as used to be commonplace in the Bonds of past decades, but to stage a coup in Bolivia and seize private control of the nation’s water supply. This latter day anti-capitalist incarnation of the Bond character echoed the real life Cochabamba water wars instigated by the World Bank’s actions in Bolivia in 1998-2000; after the World Bank refused to guarantee a $25mn loan to refinance water services in the city of Cochabamba, the local government was forced to sell its public water utility to a subsidiary of giant US conglomerate Bechtel and pass on costs to consumers. When water rates subsequently increased by almost 35%, tens of thousands of Cochabamba citizens protested for a week and the Bolivian government ended up breaking its contract with Bechtel.
More recently, the producers set new records for their series with 2012’s ultra-patriotic “Skyfall,” which marginalises the role of the US to two brief, mildly derogatory references. In real life of course, the UK-US “special relationship” retains a much discussed role, albeit one whose mystique is cultivated almost exclusively by British prime ministers anxious to “punch above their weight” in the world.
Recent revelations about the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) Prism programme of systematic surveillance of private emails by whistleblower Edward Snowden include the fact that the NSA pays a $100m dollar stipend to the UK’s General Communications headquarters (GCHQ) at Cheltenham for monitoring information and analysis. This should come as little surprise to followers of British power, yet it is one truly close aspect of the special relationship which is repeatedly glossed over.
For obvious reasons, UK politicians prefer to focus the spotlight on cultural relationships and shared military adventures. More murky episodes like the forced relocation of Chagossian islanders from the British Indian Ocean Territory in the 1960s, to make way for the multi-billion dollar US base at Diego Garcia, are ignored even after human rights victories by the islanders in British courts.
It is a peculiar irony that the island of Britain, which has historically set much store by traditions of liberty, where celebrated authors like Huxley and Orwell have warned of sinister police states in the dystopian novels “Brave New World” and “1984,” is one of the most closely monitored societies on earth by CCTV. Policy makers justify such surveillance on the grounds of public safety and point to the fact that the security services are skilled at monitoring and infiltrating terrorist cells without the need to often lock people up. No surprise then that the US should value the British intelligence services.
The stark truth is that the special relationship in its current form harks back to the close dependence of the British empire on the US to fight World War II. In exchange for military bases and shared atomic knowledge, the allies built a relationship which has stood the test of time. Whilst Britain’s inflated post-war military budget allowed it to contribute troops to the Korean war and develop innovative aircraft like the Harrier jump jet beloved of US Marines, the core of the relationship has always been based far more on the sharing of information and less on Bond style heroics. In the early years of the war with Nazi Germany, British and Polish agents obtained and cracked the German enigma cipher machine which was used to send coded messages. By careful analysis and subtle use of the information deciphered, British code crackers based at Bletchley Park are credited with not only shortening the war by at least a year, but with also building the prototype for the world’s first electronic computer.
As with other inventions, British creativity was not so readily translated into commercial application after the war. Economic historians like Correlli Barnett have blamed the post war government’s decision to maintain illusions of great power status via an inflated military budget for the UK’s failure to match the post-war German and Japanese economic booms.
What is often obscured by the enormous legacy of Britain’s Industrial Revolution and Victorian heyday of railways and world domination is that British inventions during the 20th century have arguably been more important in shaping the modern world. The cracking of the enigma code by the team led by the legendary mathematician and pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing, was but one element in a series of innovations including television, jet engines, penicillin, DNA, the concept for geostationary communications satellites and the world wide web protocol, which are credited by the Japanese Ministry of Trade and industry (Miti) for over half the world’s most important contemporary inventions. Tragically, Turing’s post-war conviction for homosexuality was to lead to his suicide and ever since the ’70s when official secrecy about the Enigma project was finally lifted, there have been (largely heeded) calls for an official exoneration.
Whilst Britain may not have been able to fully exploit its inventions commercially, the legacy of successful spying and cooperation with the Americans, established during the war thanks to Turing’s team, lived on not just throughout the Cold War, but into the present century.
Thus it is that largely desk bound bureaucrats in the green confines of the English countryside at Cheltenham and the river bank at Vauxhall, carry on spying on the world’s communications, as a not insignificant cog in the wheels of American power. For anyone concerned about civil liberties, the tentacles of James Bond the librarian and analyst, ought not to be dismissed lightly – See more at: http://www.dhakatribune.com/long-form/2013/09/02/james-bond-is-a-librarian-probably/