Oracle Open World 2018 seems a world away. Especially, when you have had a few days’ furlough in between.
Mark Hurd’s second keynote at OOW convoked a common room of former spies from the US and UK intelligence world. It was an interesting session, and I thought I’d offer a few words by way of reflection. A very good account of the session is given by Rebecca Hill over at The Register.
Joining Hurd on stage were Oracle’s own chief corporate architect, Edward Screven, Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA, Jeh Johson, former head of the Department of Homeland Security, and Sir John Scarlett, former head of our own Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6.
I’ll put the comments of the Americans to one side. John Scarlett said an arresting thing about how British people typically see the state as benign, whereas Americans do not – partly, he joked, as a result of the actions that provoked their rebellion in 1776. He didn’t mention the British burning down of the White House in 1814, which Malcolm Tucker said we would do again, in the film In the Loop. That might have been a joke too far.
Sir John said: “in the UK, people don’t look at the state as a fundamental threat to our liberties. In the US you have a different mentality – partly because of us”.
But are we really so insouciant about the state and its surveillance? There are many contumacious traditions on these islands. The London Corresponding Society, of which Edward Thompson writes in his magisterial The Making of the English Working Class is one such on the radical left, in the late eighteenth century. And, on the right, there are libertarian Tory anarchists aplenty, from Jonathan Swift to David Davis, the “Brexit Bulldog”. And these anti-statists are just as British as the undoubtedly fine men and women of SIS.
Scarlett did, though, have interesting things to say. For instance, about the Cold War being a riskier time than now. “There is a tendency now to say we live in a world that is more unpredictable than previously. But the Cold War was not a time of predictability and stability. There was the nuclear war scare in 1983. It was the real thing, and not many people know about it”.
However, he said he does now see a perilous return of Great Power tensions and rivalries and that technology is a great leveller in that respect, with the relationship between the US and China being at the centre of that new “great game”. He also said that there is not as yet a “sense of the rules of the game to agree on whether a cyber-attack is an act of war”. And added: “I am wary of talk of a ‘cyber 9-11′. I think that is to think in old ways”.
Later in the discussion he said he comes from “a world of security and secrecy where you protect what you really need to protect. That is critical. Attack and defence will continue to evolve, but the philosophical point is you need to be completely clear about what you really, really need to protect. You can’t protect everything”.
One small point. I was amused and interested to hear Mark Hurd pronounce SIS as “Sis”. Was John Scarlett too British and polite to correct him? Or is our security service affectionately thus known among the security cognoscenti on the other side of the Pond?
All in all, it was an interesting session. And it caused me to re-read the chapter on the special relationship between the UK and US intelligence communities in Christopher Hitchens’ Blood, Class and Empire. There, in ‘The Bond of Intelligence’, he writes (of an episode in Nelson Aldrich’s book Old Money):
“it is difficult to think of any more harmonious collusion between unequals, or any more friendly rivalry, than that existing between the American and British “cousins” at this key moment in a just war [the Second World War]. In later and more caricatured forms it has furnished moments of semi-affectionate confusion in several score novels and films: the American doing his damnedest to choke down the school-dinner food in his plummy colleague’s Pall Mall Club; the Englishman trying to get a scotch without ice in Georgetown. It is the foundation of James Bond’s husky comradeship with Felix Leiter, and of numerous slightly more awkward episodes in the works of John le Carré”.