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From Bletchley Park to 'Deny, Disrupt, Degrade, Deceive': an Inevitable Path?

23/09/2014 14:54 BST | Updated 14/11/2014 10:59 GMT

By all accounts, The Imitation Game went down well at the Toronto Film Festival, with Benedict Cumberpatch taking a step sideways from his cutely homoerotic Sherlock, to bring us his version of the altogether more brilliant, more eccentric, more overtly gay Alan Turing.

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As we all know, Turing was driven to suicide while the rest of his cohort at Bletchley Park languished in silence, prevented by a paranoid establishment from disclosing their part in the war effort.

The better part of fifty years passed before we were allowed to understand the depth and breadth of their achievement: the breaking of the Enigma and Geheimschreiber ciphers, the daily, nightly, mind-breaking mining of the ULTRA data that shortened the war by months, if not years, and saved tens of thousands of lives on both sides. (Image of Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing courtesy of StudioCanal)

If our sexual morality was dodgy in those days, at least war was black and white. The good guys fought the bad guys and if we had any doubts that perhaps at some level we might be fighting for the grubby capitalist adventures of economic and scientific larceny, the discovery of the concentration camps and all that was associated with them, washed it away. What's 44 tons of blueprints and data shipped out of Germany in the post-war months when set aside the millions gassed, tortured and killed as lab rats in mindless, pointless data-fishing studies?

So how then, did we get from a collection of wartime heroes, to the GCHQ/NSA of the Edward Snowden revelations? From genuine, back-against-the-wall desperation and ingenuity to the creation of a data centre apparently designed to mine everything and hang onto it forever while at the same time, hacking the computers of the US Congress so that there is no capacity for oversight? How did we get to the point where 'Deny, Disrupt, Degrade, Deceive' was the accepted response to anyone who challenges the might of the NSA/GCHQ hegemony?

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(Image courtesy of Trevor Paglen)

For that, we have to step back to the immediate post-war years, a time when Europe was in chaos, when civil wars wrought havoc in Greece, Italy, France, and threatened half a dozen other nations. It is probably not the case that the Soviet Union was hell bent on occupying the whole of Europe - if we in Britain were impoverished, the USSR was far more so - but we allowed those of the German Intelligence community who had agents within the Soviet camp to tell us that it was. They told us of a threat and gave us the means to counter it - namely themselves - and we took it. On the back of Operation Paperclip which saw the direct import into the US of 1600 Nazi scientists many of whom had actively supported the Third Reich and all it represented, we also imported, wholesale, important parts of the German intelligence agencies.

The Gehlen Organisaton was the most obvious result: a gathering of Nazi ideologues pursuing their anti-Slavic agenda largely unchanged, and dragging the west with them. 'Are you now or have you ever been, a Communist?' (for details, I recommend Christopher Simpson's Blowback.)

And we took in Klaus Barbie. If you're looking for one single pointer to the moment when the Intelligence agencies of the US and UK lost their moral compass, this is it.

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(Wartime Image: public domain)

Barbie was a sadist of terrifying depravity. You don't want the details - and if you do, you can follow the link - but there is no possible way anyone could have pretended either ignorance of his behaviour or that it was defensible. Knowing who he was, and what he was, the UK intelligence agencies, and then, after 1947, the CIA, took him in, took him on, gave him protection and, in 1955, when the French were getting just a bit too close for comfort, got him out down the rat lines to Bolivia, to continue pretty much unchanged the behaviour he had displayed in France.

He wasn't alone, by any means, but he serves as a suitable example and his survival beyond the Nuremberg Trials poses a straightforward question: What happens to the political and moral soul of a nation - of two nations, the UK and the US - if we import into our scientific and intelligence communities, and through them into our body politic and commercial, individuals who espouse virulently fascist politics?

We are living the reactionary, Libertarian result. In many ways, it's not surprising that Guantanemo Bay exists, or that the venal reality of Abu Ghraib came to light, only that they took so long to happen. Similarly, if your thinking is shaped by men who worked for the SS, whose lives were shaped by the implementation of a police state, then the creation of the Utah Data Centre and the NSA-GCHQ global surveillance are natural responses.

I suspect that none of those currently at the front end has much clue as to their antecedents. They largely, I imagine, consider themselves to be the good guys, holding at bay the rampant hordes of barbarians who would destroy their culture. Klaus Barbie, I have no doubt, felt much the same.

Manda Scott is an author and Chair of the Historical Writers' Association. She is Programming Chair of the Harrogate History Festival, where she'll be appearing with Elizabeth Chadwick, Bernard Cornwell, Irving Finkel, Conn Iggulden, Peter Snow, James Naughtie and Sandi Toksvig. For tickets and a full programme, visit: www.harrogateinternationalfestivals.com/history or Box Office: 01423 562 303