Shock horror! US spying on its allies

WASHINGTON. July 12. KAZINFORM While the man who started the whole cyber-spying scandal Edward Snowden, still searches for a country that will protect him against the wrath of the US security establishment and indeed of President Barack Obama himself, big questions have been raised about Washington's willingness to snoop upon its allies.

It has to be a given that nations that find themselves at odds, will use agents to discover other's plans and thinking. During the long decades of the Cold War, vast security empires were built up in the West and in the Soviet bloc, designed to penetrate and steal military secrets.

The secret war, in addition to supplying writers of fiction with a seeming inexhaustible supply of spy dramas, was widely accepted by the public in most countries, as being a conflict well worth fighting.

Public opinion is less easy when it comes to the vast resources of an intelligence machine being turned on allies or more particularly upon its own population.

Regardless of whether he is seen as a traitor to his country or a civil rights hero, the questions that Edward Snowden has raised in this area, must be addressed. The revelation that the US, UK and French security services are snooping on the Internet exchanges of their own citizens has apparently come as a shock. However given the heightened state of security since the 9/11 attacks, which has embraced everything from air travel to online messaging, it is surely understandable that such monitoring is taking place.

What might not have been appreciated, though it is easily worked out, is the extent to which this snooping has mushroomed in the years since 9/11. The power of computer chips continues to double while their cost halves, every 18 months. That means that governments can afford to run powerful programs that will soak up tens if not hundreds of millions of suspect mails every day. The real expense is in the massive storage banks necessary to hold all these data and the sophisticated software that will automatically examine it and flag up areas of interest or concern.

The question of spying on friendly countries is however rather different. In a passing reference to the outrage some governments have expressed at the revelation that Washington has been spying on them, Obama seemed to suggest that they ought to get real and admit that they themselves were also busy trying to spy on America and other friendly allies. It was what governments do, the president appeared to say.

Well yes and no. There is intelligence and there is intelligence. It is the job of every country's diplomats to find out as much as possible about the place where they are stationed. The endless round of receptions and conferences and meetings are used to pick up snippets of information. These might be about changes to a government's policies or personnel or big new deals that are coming up. Much of this is gossip and as such, is likely to be inaccurate but put together at formal embassy meetings of a country's diplomats, this tittle-tattle can sometimes be assembled into a useful picture of what is going on in a country and how it is likely to develop economically or politically or socially. In the most paranoid of countries, this might well be considered spying.

But Obama probably was not referring to this when he implied that every country spied on its allies. What he meant, besides cyber-snooping, was that intelligence services will suborn, bribe or otherwise recruit key officials to tell them secret data, they will burgle and bug and do whatever it takes to find out information that is deemed by someone in their home government to be of importance.

Because by their very nature, such activities are criminal, publicizing them causes outrage, whether feigned or real among politicians. Obama was not about to go front and center to admit this - no leader ever could. But he was right to point out the hypocrisy of European politicians who claimed how shocked they were.

Perhaps the real reason for the protests is that, when all is said and done, certainly in terms of the gargantuan cyber-interception powers of the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland, the Americans are just so much better at this spying business than their European allies.


Currently reading