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News that an Agency of the government of the United States of America has been spying on the heads of state of a nation to which the US has been formally aligned for over half a century has not come as a surprise. The three French presidents whose conversations were scooped up by the techno-dweebs of the National Security Agency are only a few of the world leaders who have been subjected to such insulting indignity; and they won’t be the last.
The French say they “find it hard to understand or imagine what motivates an ally to spy on allies who are often on the same strategic positions in world affairs,” but they know very well what goes on. There are many reasons for spying on trusted allies, and it would be ingenuous to imagine that items of foreign commercial information are not passed on to US enterprises. That’s the free market.
In the bigger picture of Intelligence the world of espionage is complex and the people involved in mega-surveillance are intent and content that their intrigues should remain a mystery to all of us ordinary citizens who are considered too unworldly to be permitted to know the extent — the all-embracing clutch — of the multi-tentacled intelligence empire.
Spying is an ancient trade devoid of moral principles and the present psychological operations’ campaign to counter evidence of irresponsibility and proven criminality on the part of British and American intelligence agencies is understandable reaction to recent revelations. The campaign is also repulsive, malevolent and based on warped deception, but that doesn’t worry the spooks who will continue to operate with the complete although necessarily furtive backing of their governments.
Britain’s murky operations against the United Nations were first made public in 2004 when government minister Clare Short stated she “had read transcripts of some of Mr Annan’s conversations. She said she recalled thinking, as she talked to Mr Annan: “Oh dear, there will be a transcript of this and people will see what he and I are saying”.” She admitted in a BBC interview that British intelligence agencies had recorded conversations of the UN Secretary General in his office in New York. This astonishing revelation attracted an intriguing reaction from her own government, with prime minister Blair declaring her statement to be “deeply irresponsible” rather than taking any action about this manifestly irresponsible and illegal operation. It was obvious that the British government was up to its neck in a program of espionage against the leader of the organization that is intended to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person,” and there was no possibility that the prime approver of such funtime capers was going to admit his culpability.
Fat chance of “dignity and worth” when the covert cowboys come to town.
In June 2013 it was revealed that the United States of America had been spying on European Union computer networks in its offices in Washington and New York. According to Germany’s Der Spiegel a document of September 2010 “explicitly named the Union’s representation at the UN as a “location target”.” It was also reported that “the NSA had also conducted an electronic eavesdropping operation in a building in Brussels where the EU Council of Ministers and the European Council were located.”
Germany’s Chancellor Merkel wasn’t the only national leader to be listened to by the chortling dweebs of the NSA. It was revealed that emails and phone calls of the presidents of Mexico had been intercepted along with those of Brazil’s Petrobras oil company. In tandem, Britain’s GCHQ mounted other campaigns, including the marvelously-named Royal Concierge program which, according to Der Spiegel, was a beauty. It reported that:
When diplomats travel to international summits, consultations and negotiations on behalf of governments, they generally tend to spend the night at high-end hotels. When they check-in, in addition to a comfortable room, they sometimes get a very unique form of room service that they did not order : a thorough monitoring by the British Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ in short.
Spiegel detailed some of the GCHQ power point presentations which were interesting in spite of their yawn-inducing dot-point style. One of them described the Royal Concierge hotel spying operations in detail and revealed that the program “identifies potential diplomatic reservations” while discovering if the (always upmarket) accommodations are “SIGINT [Signals Intelligence] friendly.” The room bookings discovered by intercept are made known to “analysts working on governmental hard targets” who swing into action and consider whether to “influence hotel choice” or even “Can we cancel their visit?” In a dismal attempt at humor the presentation was titled “Tales from the Wild, Wild West of GCHQ Operational Datamining,” which conjures up a picture of GCHQs “technical operations community” as the Wild Bunch led by Butch and Sundance in a sendup version of Blazing Saddles.
Royal Concierge and countless other British and American clandestine programs aimed at supposed allied countries were and continue to be part of a pattern of illegal and crassly disloyal (to NATO nations, for example) spookery that might be thought to be out of control were it not for the fact that the US and British governments approve of and control every type of surveillance. And especially those that might have commercial connotations. Europe’s Airbus, for example, has evidence that Germany’s intelligence service cooperated with the NSA in industrial espionage. And there’s lots more where that came from.
All these filthy operations continue to be controlled by governments. We should not imagine for a moment that the operations of the Butch and Sundance Wild West Bunch have in any way been affected by the publicized fact that they are illegal.
On June 14 the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times of London alleged that Britain had withdrawn spies from “hostile countries” because Russia and China had supposedly cracked codes in documents made public by Edward Snowden. Many of these documents showed that the spy agencies of Britain and America had acted with blatant illegality in conducting operations, and since that revelation there has been an energetic and fairly successful campaign by authorities in both countries to try to smear Snowden and convince the world that Uncontrolled Spying is Good for Freedom.
The recent assertions by the Sunday Times named no names and gave no detail. The piece is based entirely on such as “senior government sources” and it is worthwhile to examine the opening paragraphs, if only to highlight truly lousy journalism.
It was the Sunday Times, after all, that went ahead with publication of the absurdly forged ‘Hitler Diaries’ in spite of being told they were fakes, with its owner saying it didn’t matter, because “we’re in the entertainment business.” Murdoch was right commercially, of course, because sales soared as a result of his decision to publish proven rubbish, and it seems that this may have become practice in a formerly admirable newspaper. In this case of garbage distribution the front page headline was “British spies betrayed to Russians and Chinese,” and things went downhill from there when it was asserted that:
RUSSIA and China have cracked the top-secret cache of files stolen by the fugitive US whistleblower Edward Snowden, forcing MI6 to pull agents out of live operations in hostile countries, according to senior officials in Downing Street, the Home Office and the security services.
Western intelligence agencies say they have been forced into the rescue operations after Moscow gained access to more than 1 million classified files held by the former American security contractor, who fled to seek protection from Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, after mounting one of the largest leaks in US history.
Senior government sources confirmed that China had also cracked the encrypted documents, which contain details of secret intelligence techniques and information that could allow British and American spies to be identified.
(The entire mishmash of misinformation and unprovable allegations can be read here.)
The piece is startlingly crass, and one of the stupidest claims is that Snowden “fled to seek protection from Vladimir Putin.” Although it is mandatory in much of the western media to malign, smear and insult President Putin whenever possible, this particular declaration is a lulu because it is so fatuously false. Snowden left Hawaii and went to Hong Kong where he hoped to arrange asylum but could not stay there and tried to travel to South America via Cuba. For obvious reasons he could not travel via western Europe, and while transiting Moscow’s international airport his passport was cancelled by Washington. He was granted permission to stay in Russia. The Putin reference is trash journalism at its most deplorable.
It is intriguing that the bizarre non-story was given so much publicity at this time, but when it is linked with a Times’ report two days previously that “One of Britain’s most wanted terrorists was tracked down and killed in a drone strike after GCHQ [Government Communications Headquarters; a British spy agency] used its powers to gather bulk data from the internet to locate him,” a pattern begins to appear.
Also on June 12 the BBC reported that “Germany has dropped an investigation into alleged tapping of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone by the US National Security Agency (NSA). The office of federal prosecutor Harald Range said the NSA had failed to provide enough evidence to justify legal action.” (And one wonders what he is thinking now that there is incontrovertible evidence about US tapping of the phones of her French colleague.)
On the same day the BBC noted that “The UK’s terrorism watchdog David Anderson QC published a review into terrorism legislation which was set up amid public concerns about surveillance sparked by Mr Snowden’s revelations. He said the country needed clear new laws about the powers of security services to monitor online activity and concluded that the current situation was “undemocratic, unnecessary and — in the long run — intolerable”.”
There was an uncomfortable amount of intolerable information being made public that did not reflect well on the supposed guardians of freedom, the cowboy intelligence services of the US and the UK, aided by others of the “Five Eyes”, the obedient little helpers in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. To those who ordered illegal surveillance operations it was becoming increasingly important that media headlines be devoted to “successes” such as the drone-killing of an alleged terrorist supposedly facilitated by internet spying and other seemingly patriotic but entirely trashy tales based on disinformation from anonymous officials acting on government orders.
Revelations of national spying delinquency continue to appear and it is impossible to deny their accuracy, so there has been a series of what might be called counter-revelations, such as the hotchpotch of nonsense in London’s Sunday Times on June 14. That pathetic travesty of reportage failed to mention the recommendation of Mr Anderson to the effect that
Each [intelligence-gathering] intrusive power must be shown to be necessary, clearly spelled out in law, limited in accordance with international human rights standards and subject to demanding and visible safeguards. The current law is fragmented, obscure, under constant challenge. It is time for a clean slate.
Mr Anderson’s report was titled “A Question Of Trust” and he made it clear who is not to be trusted. Unlike most heads of British government inquiries Mr Anderson will never be recognized by award of a national honor. Neither will he approve publication of distorted drivel in order to make a fortune. He is, after all, neither a Wild West cowboy nor in the entertainment business.
Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.
A shorter version of this piece appeared in Russia’s Strategic Council Foundation online on June 22.