With friends like these…

Print edition : November 29, 2013

U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on June 19. Photo: THOMAS PETER/Reuters

The U.S. embassy in Berlin. The “Special Collection Services” listening post here was used to monitor the Chancellor’s office. Photo: Michael Sohn/AP

Spain's Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo. Photo: KEITH BEDFORD/REUTERS

Edward Snowden’s latest revelations that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was at the receiving end of NSA surveillance force E.U. governments to face up to a breach of trust by their close ally.

THE latest revelations emanating from the dossier compiled by the American whistle-blower Edward Snowden have provided irrefutable proof that the Obama administration has been spying on friend and foe—its own citizens and foreigners—alike. The international community is now fully aware that American security agencies, if they so wish, can decipher the political and social tendencies of millions of global citizens at the click of a button. It has now emerged that intelligence agencies in countries such as Australia and Canada have been lending a helping hand to the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) in the pursuance of these nefarious activities. The NSA, according to the documents that have emerged until now, hacked into the cell phones and personal communications of three heads of state. The list is expected to grow.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who thought she enjoyed a special relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, could never have imagined that she would be subjected to surveillance by a close political and military ally. Her communications have been compromised by the U.S. intelligence agencies since 2002, even before she became the Chancellor for the first time. The German media said Obama was first informed about this by the NSA only in 2010. “Obama did not halt the operation but rather let it continue,” the newspaper Bild am Sonntag wrote.

Nest of spies

The U.S. Embassy in Berlin, according to the German media, was transformed into a busy nest of spies, routinely eavesdropping to monitor conversations and mails pertaining to politics and business. It was revealed in September that similar activities were ongoing in Brazil and Mexico, two countries having good relations with the U.S. The list of heads of state who were under close American surveillance, according to documents released by Snowden, had more than 35 names. Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Roussef have made their anger very visible to Washington. Dilma Roussef took the unprecedented step of calling off her official visit to the U.S. in September to send a strong signal to Washington that it could not be business as usual until an official apology was made. Angela Merkel, after a testy telephone conversation with Obama, dispatched her top intelligence officials to the White House to get a first-hand explanation about the scope of U.S. intelligence activities in Germany. She described the hacking of her cell phone and related activities by the NSA as a serious “breach of trust”. The White House acknowledged that the German Chancellor’s conversations and mails were monitored routinely and that the President had ordered an immediate stop to this. “It is not just about me but about every German citizen. We need to have trust in our allies and partners, and this trust must be re-established,” she told the media. German lawmakers met Snowden in Moscow and requested him to come to Berlin to testify in the Bundestag on the NSA spying network.

Both Angela Merkel and Dilma Roussef are evidently not satisfied with the official U.S. response. In late October, Germany and Brazil circulated a draft resolution in the United Nations General Assembly that called on member states “to take measures” to end excessive electronic surveillance, data collection and other gross invasions of privacy. The draft resolution chose not to specifically name the U.S. for the violation of international human rights laws. The two countries want all the 193 U.N. member states to declare unanimously that they “are deeply concerned at human rights violations and abuses that may result from the conduct of any surveillance of communications, including extraterritorial surveillance of communications”. The proposed resolution would also call on member states to “create conditions” to prevent such violations in the future by “ensuring that relevant national legislation complies with their obligations under international human rights laws”.

The resolution wants all U.N. member states to establish “independent oversight mechanisms capable of ensuring transparency and accountability of state surveillance of communications, their interception and collection of personal data”. General Assembly resolutions, unlike U.N. Security Council resolutions, are non-binding. It is unlikely that big powers such as the U.S. will ever agree to abstain from spying in third countries. U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay observed that mass surveillance posed “one of the biggest threats” to human rights.

The draft may undergo changes before it is put to vote in December. Many countries, including India, which have sophisticated and wide-ranging surveillance capabilities, may not come on board fully. Both India and Germany share intelligence data with the U.S.

The latest documents provided by Snowden had evidence showing that the Australian embassies in Asia collected intelligence on behalf of the NSA. Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, a close friend of George W. Bush, had once described his country as America’s “junior sheriff” in Asia. The “Five Eyes”, as the U.S., the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand are known in Western security parlance, have continued to cooperate closely. No evidence has emerged as yet of any intrusive spying on the leaders of these countries.

Listening posts

In India and the West, China was being blamed for most of the cyber-spying. Now it has been conclusively proved that most of the spying in Asia and Europe was done by the NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), with China being the main target. The data released by Snowden exposes the existence of American “Special Collection Services” (SCS) listening posts in leading Asian and European countries. A recent report in the magazine Der Spiegel said that among the eight listening posts located in Asia, two were in the U.S. embassies in New Delhi and Islamabad. The SCS located in the U.S. embassy in Berlin was used to monitor the German Chancellor’s office. Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said that running such operations on German soil was illegal and “those responsible must be held accountable”. The scandal has caused the biggest rift between Germany and the U.S. since the end of the Second World War.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged recently that the NSA had “reached too far” and claimed that the federal agency was on “autopilot”, with the Obama administration being unaware of many of its activities. There are many in the U.S. who actually think that President Obama has very little control over the Pentagon and the NSA, dominated as it is by right-wing ideologues left behind by the Bush administration. The annual security budget is estimated to be around $80 billion. At the same time, Kerry, without giving any supporting evidence, said that the NSA surveillance “prevented airplanes from going down, buildings from being blown up, and people from being assassinated”.

Under the Obama administration, the NSA has appropriated more wide-ranging powers than it had under the Bush administration. In late October, Snowden revealed that the NSA was allowed to gather all information secretly from Google and Yahoo. The NSA program code-named “MUSCULAR” had broken into the global data centres of the two Internet giants. According to The Washington Post, the NSA was able to “collect at will from among millions of user accounts, among them Americans”. In January alone, MUSCULAR was able to access 181 million records for storage at the NSA headquarters. Another 70 million phone calls and SMS messages were collected from France and 60 million in Spain within the one-month period. Interestingly, the NSA, under a separate program called “PRISM”, was officially allowed “front door” access to user accounts in these two Internet giants.

The French Foreign Ministry spokesperson said the continuing NSA denials about its culpability were “not believable” and that there was a need to get “more clarity on the practices of the U.S. secret service”. Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said that if reports of the NSA snooping on private phone calls in his country proved to be true, then it would “break the climate of trust that traditionally existed between the two countries”. Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande are planning to hold talks with Obama to chalk out the terms of a “non-spying” agreement on the European Union member countries. The Italian magazine Panorama has reported that the NSA did not spare even the Vatican, and monitored incoming and outgoing phone calls. In June, the Italian weekly L’Expresso had claimed that the NSA had monitored more than a million calls in Italy.

In Germany, many have called for the intelligence apparatus in their country to be strengthened so that it can be less dependent on help from allies such as the U.S. Angela Merkel hinted that intelligence sharing with Washington could be reviewed in the light of the latest revelations. Glen Greenwald, the investigative journalist who has been closely involved with Snowden, noted that Angela Merkel was initially unconcerned when reports about the massive American spying on Germany first came out a few months back. It was only after she realised that her personal phone was hacked that she reacted strongly. Grigor Gysi, leader of The Left party, the third largest in the Bundestag, said Germany should give Snowden political asylum so that he could speak freely before the parliamentary committee looking into NSA-hacking affair.

The governments in Europe and Asia that have a close relationship with Washington are, meanwhile, trying to keep under wraps their own close linkages with U.S. security agencies such as the NSA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the CIA. The British intelligence services, too, have been collecting cell phone and Internet data on behalf of the NSA. In return, the Americans gave their British counterparts access to data impacting on their national security interests. The French and German intelligence services cooperate closely with the U.S. on the world stage, especially in West Asia. The NSA claimed that European security agencies secretly provided records of millions of phone calls.

The alacrity with which the major European security agencies cooperated in forcing the plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales to land in Vienna in early July is an illustration. They had believed that the Bolivian President, who was returning from an official visit to Russia, had Snowden as a co-passenger. Bolivia was among a handful of countries that had offered unconditional political asylum to the fugitive whistle-blower. Even today none of the European governments, even those subjected to massive U.S. surveillance such as Germany and France, are willing to consider the possibility of giving Snowden asylum.