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“These Things Are Done”: Eavesdropping on Trump

As President Trump careers erratically and emotionally from tweet to tweet the world wonders what can possibly come next.  There seems to be no limit to his flights of polemic, of which one on March 4 concerned an assertion that he had been spied upon by his predecessor, Barack Obama, which he considered  “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”  He followed this by “How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”

Then White House spokesman Sean Spicer quoted a media pundit’s assertion that “President Obama didn’t use the NSA, he didn’t use the CIA, he didn’t use the FBI and he didn’t use the department of justice;  he used GCHQ” — Britain’s ‘Government Communications Headquarters’ spy agency that eavesdrops on private conversations all over the world.

International reaction was varied, and the Brits declared the allegation to be “utterly ridiculous” and “nonsense”, while the Germans kept quiet, because Chancellor Angela Merkel was paying her first visit to Trumpdom and wouldn’t want to talk about the sleazy business of her phone being tapped by Mr Obama’s National Security Agency, which no doubt gave what it recorded to GCHQ, as there is total cooperation between these two spook-dens and their equivalents in New Zealand, Canada and especially Australia, whose listening networks are particularly penetrating.

Der Spiegel reported the tapping of Merkel’s phone and noted that the US Embassy in Berlin “is a nest of espionage. From the roof, a special unit of the CIA and NSA can apparently monitor a large part of cellphone communication in the government quarter. And there is evidence that agents based there recently targeted the cellphone that Merkel uses the most.”

On March 17 the tweeting Trump referred to this duplicitous spying during his graceless meeting with Ms Merkel (arguably the world’s most sensible and honorable political leader), and in answer to a German reporter wittily retorted that “as far as wiretapping I guess by this past administration, at least we have something in common, perhaps.”  Frau Merkel, who has nothing at all in common with her uncouth counterpart, did not reply.

The matter of GCHQ involvement in the Obama wire taps is now being swept aside, save by a few observers who wonder how much substance there might be to the original statement on Fox News by Judge Andrew Napolitano who said  “Sources have told me that the British foreign surveillance service, the Government Communications Headquarters, known as GCHQ, most likely provided Obama with transcripts of Trump’s calls. The NSA has given GCHQ full 24/7 access to its computers, so GCHQ — a foreign intelligence agency that, like the NSA, operates outside our constitutional norms — has the digital versions of all electronic communications made in America in 2016, including Trump’s.”

This seems pretty compelling stuff, but of course the British authorities could never say anything about it, because, as GCHQ declared in 2014, “It is a longstanding policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters.”

Then on March 16 GCHQ commented on intelligence matters by announcing that “Recent allegations made by media commentator judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wiretapping’ against the then president-elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”

It is unusual for a foreign intelligence agency to declare that the White House has retailed ridiculous nonsense, and it is most unlikely there will ever be any direct evidence that GCHQ did or did not listen to the phone calls of Mr Trump — but it’s obvious from WikiLeaks that there’s a lot of listening going on.

One of the usual official but anonymous sources told Reuters that under British law, GCHQ “can only gather intelligence for national security purposes” so one wonders why its techno-dweebs tapped the telephone calls of, for example, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

In 2004 the BBC reported that the Brits had been spying on Mr Annan for a long time. A former Cabinet Minister called Clare Short casually revealed that in the period before the US-UK invasion of Iraq “the UK was also spying on Kofi Annan’s office and getting reports from him about what was going on.”  She was pressed on the matter, presumably because the interviewer found it difficult to believe that a former member of government would admit that the country engaged in such skullduggery, and replied that “these things are done. And in the case of Kofi’s office it’s been done for some time.”

Her questioner said  “Let me repeat the question :  do you believe Britain has been involved in it?” to which she replied “Well I know;  I have seen transcripts of Kofi Annan’s conversations. Indeed, I had conversations with Kofi in the run-up to war thinking ‘Oh dear, there will be a transcript of this and people will see what he and I are saying’.”  To make it clear to the public that the British government had been acting illegally, her interlocutor said “so in other words British spies — let’s be very clear about this in case I’m misunderstanding you — British spies have been instructed to carry out operations inside the United Nations on people like Kofi Annan?”  To which Short replied “Yes, absolutely.”

Short was being interviewed about the prosecution of a GCHQ translator, Katharine Gun, who had been appalled about the Iraq War conspiracies and made public “a top-secret email which revealed US plans to bug delegates at the United Nations Security Council ahead of a crucial vote in the run-up to the conflict.” The charges against Ms Gun were dropped because the government feared its sleazy fandangos would be revealed in a court of law (almost the only place where it’s dangerous to tell lies), and the Prime Minister’s Office made the usual statement  that “We never comment on intelligence matters.”

Neither did GCHQ say anything about this exposure of Britain’s totally unlawful actions because of its “longstanding policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters,”  but it was obvious they had been caught with their fingers on the keys.

Then there is GCHQ’s wonderfully named Royal Concierge operation about which Der Spiegel 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 . . .  GCHQ has had a system to automatically monitor hotel bookings of at least 350 upscale hotels around the world in order to target, search and analyze reservations to detect diplomats and government officials.”

In order to spread instruction about the best means of eavesdropping on diplomats and other representatives of foreign governments, be they friendly, allied or otherwise, GCHQ prepared a briefing on its hotel monitoring and surveillance program, and in a splendid flight of whimsical grubbiness titled one of its Royal Concierge presentations “Tales from the Wild, Wild West of GCHQ Operational Datamining.”

Given their longstanding involvement in datamining people’s hotel rooms, GCHQ’s audiophiles would be just the people to snoop on Trump Tower, but of course they say they didn’t. And it would be improper to suggest that GCHQ’s giggling little geeks listen to people’s private conversations all over the world, because the British government says they don’t, and as we know, the British government always tells the truth.

But it would be interesting to know just who does listen in to Trump. Remember Clare Short’s prosaic statement,  her throwaway line that “these things are done.”  Is it still the “Wild, Wild West” of datamining, out there?

More articles by:

Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.

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