By Hugh Ash
I SPY with my little eye somebody beginning with M. Or, more currently, it should be: I hear with my big ear someone called Merkel gabbling on her cellphone – quaintly known to Germans as a ‘handy’ – and have done for yonks.
Handy is an apt word if you’re an eavesdropper from the US National Security Agency, the NSA now unofficially renamed Nosy Snoopers on Anyone, as they cock a snook (or spook) at friend and foe alike, all treated without fear or favour.
In almost any other context such equanimity would be laudable. In this case it’s upset the balance of trust that existed between allies and prompted a storm of outrage that – unlike the one which struck Britain last week, courtesy of St. Jude – shows every sign of rumbling on indefinitely.
It’s always been given that all’s fair in spying and prying where enemies collide. Hence the lack of uproar when the Russians were said to have presented ‘Trojan Horse’ gifts of USB flash-drive pens and cellphone chargers to delegates at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg that relayed info back to the Kremlin.
But, scuppering your mates? How low can the spooks stoop, even if it’s only commercial, industrial and financial espionage? Answer: No-one’s off limits.
Small wonder German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is incandescent with rage that the NSA nobbled her Nokia – she’s now swapped it for a more secure Blackberry Z10 – while thunderclaps of diplomatic indignation have been resounding across Europe.
Thanks to whistleblower and former CIA contractor, Ed Snowden, currently dossing down out of CIA clutches in Moscow, it appears the good ole boys at America’s ace electronic surveillance squad, in Fort Mead, Maryland, have been scanning heaven-knows-how-many telecons and emails across swathes of Western Europe and the Americas.
Francois Hollande, the French President, was incredulous when told the NSA secretly monitored 70 million calls, texts and emails made in France; Premier Mariano Rajoy was similarly gobsmacked to learn 60 million were trawled in Spain; and the Italians choked on their cannelloni at news of 46 million intercepts.
The leaders of Brazil and Mexico were also furious at reports they were victims.
In fact, the only national leader not to quibble his handpiece was hacked is Prime Minister David Cameron, presumably on the basis that Britain’s GCHQ has a mutual, back-scratching deal with the Americans.
Just for the record the mindboggling tallies I’ve listed cover only one month of NSA snooping…between December, 2012, and this January, although it was heartening to know the listeners had the good grace to take off 30 December, New Year’s Day and 2 January.
Using software appropriately branded ‘Boundless Informant’, the NSA apparently noted where calls were made, the series numbers of handsets, SIM card data and duration of calls.
It makes allegations against former New International luminaries, including ex-News of the World editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson – on trial at the Old Bailey on charges variously related to hacking voice-mail messages and corruption – seem playground frolics by comparison.
Meanwhile, according to Glenn Greenwald – the Brazil-based US journalist, who has worked with Snowden to publish the spying revelations – though call content was not recorded, intercepts included intrusion in personal information through internet browsers, emails and social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.
As the evidence stacks up, President Obama has been forced into humiliating apologies to his nominal pals, telling Merkel, ‘Your phone isn’t being tapped and will not be.’
In subtle contrast, he is said to have told Cameron, ‘Your phone has never been tapped, isn’t being tapped and will never be’, which clearly indicates America’s commander-in-chief knew his German counterpart had been a target, if no longer.
So, despite attempts to paint Obama as an ‘ignorant party’ to his eavesdroppers’ operations, he can’t wriggle off the hook and blame his predecessor, President G ‘Dubya’ Bush, for authorising the earwigging in the first place. Contrary to Hollywood myth, information gathering of this type – codenamed COMINT (communications intelligence) – at this level isn’t some ‘black op’ handled covertly by a rogue outfit working outside its remit.
Strangely, US spooks are unrepentant over this furore. Even more bizarrely, their cloak-and-laptop buddies across Europe don’t seem particularly fazed either, even if their political masters are in a blue funk, or feign as much.
Because, the simple truth is everyone’s at it, not just the usual suspects, principally China – which hacks into US and British IT systems countless times a day – and Russia’s FSB, which morphed from the KGB.
As Bernard Squarcini, ex-head of French intelligence, admits, ‘All countries, even allies co-operating in the anti-terrorist struggle, are spying on each other.
‘The Americans spy on us in the commercial and industrial field and we spy on them, because it’s in the national interest to defend our companies. Everyone knows it.’
And Merkel’s a fine one to moan. The BND, Germany’s equivalent of MI5, fessed up to the Bild newspaper that it monitored phone calls, text message and emails in the USA, saying, ‘We take what we can get. If someone offers us information, for instance about the Americans, we will not throw it in the bin.’
Neither is Britain an innocent bystander. In fact, we’re hugely respected as maestros of the spying game, numbering amongst our virtuoso performances bugging the Bundesbank, tapping the handpieces of UN Security Council members and – if ex-Labour minister Clare Short is to be believed – nobbling UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan’s cellphone in the prelude to the 1990 Gulf War.
Professor Antony Glees, an expert in espionage, is pretty sangfroid in his assessment of the intelligence community, saying that despite co-operation between friendly nations, spying on one another was routine.
‘Any agency worth its salt would do it,’ he states blandly. ‘You’d want your money back if they didn’t.’
So the next time a world leader bleats about being bugged, I suggest they recall the biblical exhortation along the lines of, ‘Let he/she who is without sin cast the first stone.’
To read more of Hugh Ash’s comments, follow his award-winning online blog – Views From The Mallorca Pier – at hughash.wordpress.com