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Will They Ever Learn?

Spying on the G20 Summit

by MARCIA MITCHELL

Today’s news is yesterday’s news—release of additional details about a shocking international surveillance operation that took place in 2009. And the 2009 spy operation was a remake of a questionable international surveillance operation that took place in 2003.

The ultimate déjà vu.

It’s the infamous 2003 story of Katharine Gun, GCHQ whistleblower (or leaker, depending) all over again. It’s the story of a newly revealed cloak and dagger case well deserving worldwide outrage now flooding the media, the story of Edward Snowden, NSA whistleblower (or leaker, depending).

The outrage, of course, depends upon perspective. Is Snowden a hero or a traitor?  Gun was labeled both at various times by various observers. Actor Sean Penn said of Gun that, “She will go down in history as a hero of the human spirit.” Angry Prime Minister Tony Blair cautioned at the time that people like her could put Great Britain “in a very dangerous situation.” Particularly, if they “could get away with it.”

In 2003, the target of secret government surveillance was the UN Security Council, with the London Observer breaking the Gun’s leak of the operation. In 2009, G20 participants were targeted, with the Guardian this week breaking Snowden’s detailed revelations about the case. Both newspapers took an enormous risk. Publishing classified information is a violation of the UK’s Official Secrets Act.  

The Gun/Snowden comparison is profoundly disturbing, and one must ask, “Do we never learn?” Or, more to the point, “Do intelligence agencies involved in this sort of espionage ever learn? Do they not understand that, sooner or later, someone with a troubled (or traitorous) conscience will let the electronic cat out of the bag?”

In both the 2003 and newly revealed 2009 cases, government spying was against friendly nations—not enemies. NSA’s operation in 2003 was against UNSC members whose votes were essential for passage of a Bush/Blair resolution specifically legitimizing war. It included as well non-Council members whose “perspectives” might be helpful. The 2009 surveillance against G20 participants, and Turkey in
spytriedparticular, has puzzled some observers. Turkey was a valued friend of the UK. The other nations were not threatening national security. Why was it necessary to eavesdrop on financial issues that could be discussed openly?

The “why” is always the big issue.

Hiding behind a shadowy cloak of  “national security,” or “fighting terrorism,” America’s NSA and Great Britain’s GCHQ continue to spy upon other government officials for purposes having little or nothing to do with either threat. In Gun’s case, the NSA invited GCHQ to join in its spying on the Security Council in an effort “to obtain results favorable to US goals.” In this later misadventure, the purpose for spying on G20 summit meetings in 2009 was essentially the same—to collect intelligence “relevant to HMG’s desired outcomes.” In both cases, the objective was solely to obtain political advantage.

And that is why, in both cases, the operations were highly classified, and why, in both, the individuals who leaked information about them became targets themselves. Gun was arrested in 2003, weeks before the invasion of Iraq. Snowden, on the run, no doubt will be arrested before long.

The British—fiction’s ultimate master spies—are essentially (although not entirely) free to spy upon whomever they wish for whatever purpose, given provisions in their Intelligence Services Act. The NSA lacks this broad-based permission. Instead, from time to time, denials are issued declaring that the agency works only within the “confines of the law.” Others have questioned this claim.

Looking even farther back than the 2003 NSA spy operation against the UNSC, one finds another lesson in what happens when government indulges in illegal (or inappropriate) surveillance. In 1949, FBI agents tapped conversations between an accused Soviet spy, Judith Coplon, and her attorney. Initially, agents lied on the stand, denying the existence of illegal electronic surveillance. In the end, they admitted having listened in on conversations conducted between the defendant and her attorney, even during the course of her trial. Coplon, although convicted twice, did not serve prison time—principally because an appellate court found the government guilty of wrongdoing. The case began a debate about wiretapping and secret surveillance that continues more than sixty years later.

As noted, will they ever learn?

Marcia Mitchell is co-author of The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion