Spying, Lying and Dying

Photo Source Adrian Pingstone | CC BY 2.0

In 2013 the German publication Der Spiegel informed us that Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, GCHQ, had been planting malware in the systems of Belgacom (now called Proximus), a telecoms company of which the Belgian government has 53% ownership. It revealed that GCHQ’s ‘Operation Socialist’ involved technology that directed targets to websites which could then inflict malware or otherwise louse up their communications.

GCHQ claims that “we keep the UK safe from various threats”, denying that it would ever be involved in anything naughty like Operation Socialist, and since the initial disclosure of its tricky antics the matter seemed to have been put to rest by the British government, like so many inconvenient and embarrassing facts about illegal fandangoes on the part of its techno-dweebs and other spooks.

But on October 25, the matter came to light again when Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that “according to leaks from a judicial inquiry presented to Belgium’s national security council this week . . . the British intelligence service was probably spying within the state-owned company’s networks on the instruction of UK ministers.”

Of course it was spying. And when the Belgians asked their longtime ally Britain for cooperation in the investigation the UK government refused, replying that “The United Kingdom believes that this could jeopardize our sovereignty, security and public order,” which is a load of sanctimonious humbug.  Cooperation in such a case is certainly impossible — but not because of any moral or security risks.  It is impossible because it would reveal government-directed unlawfulness.

Which brings us to the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 which was apparently recorded in some fashion.  The BBC reported that “A Turkish security source has confirmed to BBC Arabic the existence of an audio and a video recording. What is not clear is if anyone other than Turkish officials has seen or heard them. One source cited by the Washington Post says that men can be heard beating Mr Khashoggi” and that recordings show he was killed and dismembered.

It seemed to be an open-and-shut case. There was evidence that the Saudi monarchy’s dictatorial regime had been so annoyed with a journalist that they killed him. It was an amateur operation, and Israel, for example, would have done a better and more discreet job (although Mossad’s assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai was a bit botched), but it achieved the Saudis’ objective and sent the message that any of their nationals daring to speak out against the Trump-supported despot in Riyadh, Mohammed bin Salman, would pay the ultimate price.

But then the story about a recording of the torture and killing of Jamal Khashoggi underwent modification.  Perhaps there wasn’t audio and video evidence, after all.  CNBC broadcast that “The Turkish newspaper Sabah reported that Khashoggi recorded audio of the alleged killing using an app on his Apple Watch and was able to upload the recording to his iPhone and iCloud account,” but the conclusion was “It would have been nearly impossible for Khashoggi to record audio and upload it to his iPhone or the internet, and it raises questions as to how Turkish officials obtained the audio and video evidence of the alleged killing.”

It seemed that the Turkish authorities were trying (and are still trying) to disguise the fact that they had the Saudis well and truly bugged, and thus heard and possibly saw almost every hideous development in the course of Khashoggi’s slaughter and dismemberment.

But there’s no point in the Turks trying to deny they are spying on everyone they can possibly spy on, be they friends or enemies. After all, it’s done all around the world by some countries who try to maintain a posture of moral ascendancy.

As is obvious from ‘Operation Socialist’, Britain is a prime example of that sort of humbug.

In 2013 the German magazine 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 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.”

Royal Concierge and countless other British and American clandestine programs aimed at supposedly allied countries were and continue to be part of a pattern of illegal and sometimes crassly disloyal spookery that might be thought to be out of control were it not for the fact that the US and British governments approve, direct and regulate every type and detail of surveillance — including (perhaps especially?) those that might have commercial connotations.

These US-UK immoral antics are not funny, and it seems the sky’s no limit and moral gutters have no depths.  It wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t insist that they were entitled to saintly halos and that any revelation of their hanky-panky “could jeopardize our sovereignty, security and public order.”

On September 18, as reported by Fox News, the Pentagon released an unclassified version of its future cybersecurity strategy, which noted that “Russia has used cyber-enabled information operations to influence our population and challenge our democratic processes” and China “has sought to steal sensitive information from the American government and private sector institutions.”  This was greeted with amusement, as it has been obvious for decades that it is exactly what is being done by the US and Britain all round the world.

In 2014 NBC News revealed that official documents it had obtained “describe techniques developed by a secret British spy unit called the Joint Threat Research and Intelligence Group (JTRIG) as part of a growing mission to go on offense and attack adversaries ranging from Iran to the hacktivists of Anonymous. According to the documents, which come from power point presentations in 2010 and 2012 at US cyber spy conferences, the agency’s goal was to “destroy, deny, degrade [and] disrupt” enemies by “discrediting” them, planting misinformation and shutting down their communications.”  The British have not denied this report.  Well they couldn’t, because they’re up to their snooping ears in techno-thuggery.

The presentations covered details of cyber attacks and propaganda operations, and NBC noted that “JTRIG also uses ‘false flag’ operations, in which British agents carry out online actions that are designed to look like they were performed by one of Britain’s adversaries.”

It’s all very murky, and it makes the allegations about Russian and Chinese cyber “interference” in US elections look a trifle suspect.  After all, GCHQ itself says that “Computer and Network Exploitation delivers to GCHQ data of intelligence value by remote access to computers, computer networks and telecom networks without the knowledge and consent of their users, within the appropriate legal framework.”

And who defines the “appropriate legal framework”?  The Saudis, maybe?



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