At Large

Bugging the World

Your calls are important to us, Mrs. Merkel.

By 10.28.13

Of course gentlemen read other gentlemen’s -- and gentlewomen’s -- mail. The statement to the contrary by Henry Stimson, who was to become FDR’s Secretary of War in 1940, was ignored by everyone in intelligence with a half a brain and even the most modest knowledge of history. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in the East German system, may be a bit more sensitive than most other leaders, but she certainly couldn’t have been surprised to learn her personal cell phones were monitored by the American National Security Agency (NSA). If the power status and responsibility between the United States and Germany had been reversed, the technical intercept component of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) would be doing the same thing – if they already aren’t trying to.

From the media reaction the idea seems to be that the electronic surveillance of non-democratic countries (fill in the list) is acceptable. Democratically elected governments supposedly should be exempt from such coverage. That standard is easily broken down depending on one’s point of view. Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi headed a democratically elected government, but obviously Egypt did not satisfy the convenient criteria of bugging limitation – as neither do other “democracies” in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

There are many examples from around the world where actions of so-called  “democracies” are actually of national security interest to Washington. The real rule in intelligence on electronic surveillance is: Gather all the pertinent information you can, but be able to deny everything if you are caught. This requires a degree of politesse on the part of all information-gathering services (human or technical) that eventually excuses transgressions. Such a methodology suggests that there is some form of ethical standard by which a nation’s information-gathering capabilities are guided. Such standards do not exist in practice, but a willingness to find individuals responsible after the fact is the norm.

The feigned shock accompanied by righteous indignation that has followed the news that the United States actually “bugged” friendly government personalities is not the height of hypocrisy by the governments concerned, but merely the expected reaction in order to preserve their own well-tarnished records. That the news media in the U.S. seem to be joining in the condemnation is the real hypocrisy. Conservative or liberal, the media have all found religion in attacking what is a capability that is or would be sought by all intelligence organizations -- if they could achieve it.

The larger question posed by the recent electronic intercept exposé is to what extent should a country protect itself through the use of covert means of communications surveillance. The answer appears to lie in the scope of the perceived threat. The Merkel incident is a good example. Apparently the real target may have been behind-the-scenes dealing between Merkel and other European leaders involving financial actions that could impact U.S. currency and thus economy. Such information of secret financial ambitions and agreement clearly carry security importance to the United States. It should be noted in the case of Germany in the past, the then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had engineered a project with the Russians to build a gas pipeline along a northern route from Vyborg, Russia, through the Baltic Sea to Greifswald, Germany. Shortly after leaving office Schroeder became chairman of the Russian-dominated Gazprom-led consortium that built the pipeline. German financial dealings are a priority for anybody interested in European security.

The explanation given out by “sources close to the NSA” (an oft-used press term) is that Merkel herself was not targeted, but that her personal cell phone calls were intercepted as part of a broad telecommunications sweep of European cell phone traffic. The Germans – who are good at this business – insist that is not likely. Whether the latter view is true is a matter of opinion. In any case, Angela Merkel is well known for her proclivity for cell phone use even at international meetings, and this might have prompted her specific targeting. The Americans have not been the only group eager to learn what was so important on those occasions. The German chancellor, however, is a very smart person who, like most important Europeans, is well acquainted with the potential of their phone conversations being tapped. The outrage of the European press and public is consistent with their already established belief that “the Americans manipulate the world” – or at least try to.

The other side of this Snowden-originated tempest is the fact that U.S. allies are recipients of a considerable amount of the intercept intelligence appropriate to them that is gathered by the NSA programs. In fact, NSA receives regular queries from its friendly counterparts in the electronic intercept business along the lines of …”Do you have anything recent on …?” The uproar over learning that Angela Merkel  -- like Henry Kissinger years ago -- regularly checks on Bundesliga football scores and other key German issues will surprise no one, but her personal comments on future Russian-German relations just might.

Photo: UPI

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.