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Foreign Officials In the Dark


One of the more bizarre aspects of the last nine months of Snowden revelations is how top political officials in other nations have repeatedly demonstrated, or even explicitly claimed, wholesale ignorance about their nations’ cooperation with the National Security Agency, as well as their own spying activities. This has led to widespread speculation about the authenticity of these reactions: Were these top officials truly unaware, or were they pretending to be, in order to distance themselves from surveillance operations that became highly controversial once disclosed?

In Germany, when Der Spiegel first reported last June that the NSA was engaged in mass spying aimed at the German population, Chancellor Angela Merkel and other senior officials publicly expressed outrage – only for that paper to then reveal documents showing extensive cooperation between the NSA and the German spy agency BND. In the Netherlands, a cabinet minister was forced to survive a no-confidence vote after he admitted to having wrongfully attributed the collection of metadata from 1.8 million calls to the NSA rather than the Dutch spying agency.

In the UK, Chris Huhne, a former cabinet minister and member of the national security council until 2012, insisted that ministers were in “utter ignorance” about even the largest GCHQ spying program, known as Tempora, “or its US counterpart, the NSA’s Prism,” as well as “about their extraordinary capability to hoover up and store personal emails, voice contact, social networking activity and even internet searches.”

A similar controversy arose in the U.S., when the White House claimed that President Obama was kept unaware of the NSA’s surveillance of Merkel’s personal cell phone and those of other allied leaders. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein claimed the same ignorance, while an unnamed NSA source told a German newspaper that the White House knew.

A new NSA document published today by The Intercept sheds considerable light on these questions. The classified document contains an internal NSA interview with an official from the SIGINT Operations Group in NSA’s Foreign Affairs Directorate. Titled “What Are We After with Our Third Party Relationships? — And What Do They Want from Us, Generally Speaking?”, the discussion explores the NSA’s cooperative relationship with its surveillance partners. Upon being asked whether political shifts within those nations affect the NSA’s relationships, the SIGINT official explains why such changes generally have no effect: because only a handful of military officials in those countries are aware of the spying activities. Few, if any, elected leaders have any knowledge of the surveillance.

Are our foreign intelligence relationships usually insulated from short-term political ups and downs, or not?

(S//SI//REL) For a variety of reasons, our intelligence relationships are rarely disrupted by foreign political perturbations, international or domestic. First, we are helping our partners address critical intelligence shortfalls, just as they are assisting us. Second, in many of our foreign partners’ capitals, few senior officials outside of their defense-intelligence apparatuses are witting to any SIGINT connection to the U.S./NSA [emphasis added].

The official adds that there “are exceptions, both on the positive and negative sides.” He gives two examples: “For instance, since the election of a pro-American president, one European partner has been much more open to providing information on their own capabilities and techniques, in hope of raising our intelligence collaboration to a higher level. Conversely, another of our partnerships has stalled, due largely to that country’s regional objectives not being in synch with those of the U.S.” In general, however, many of these “relationships have, indeed, spanned several decades” and are unaffected by changes due to elections, in large part because the mere existence of these activities is kept from the political class.

The implications for democratic accountability are clear. In an October Guardian op-ed, Huhne, the British former cabinet minister, noted that “when it comes to the secret world of GCHQ and the [NSA], the depth of my ‘privileged information’ has been dwarfed by the information provided by Edward Snowden to the Guardian.” Detailing what appears to be the systematic attempt to keep political officials in the dark, he wrote: ”The Snowden revelations put a giant question mark into the middle of our surveillance state. It is time our elected representatives insisted on some answers before destroying the values we should protect.”

The dangers posed by a rogue national security state, operating in secret and without the knowledge of democratically elected officials, have long been understood. After serving two terms as president, Dwight D. Eisenhower famously worried in his 1961 Farewell Address about the accumulated power of the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry,” warning of what he called the “grave implications” of “the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” He urged citizens: “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

A secret GCHQ memo, reported by the Guardian in October, demonstrates that the agency’s primary motive for concealing its surveillance activities is that disclosure could trigger what it called ”damaging public debate,” as well as legal challenges throughout Europe. Those fears became realized when, in the wake of Snowden revelations, privacy lawsuits against the agency were filed in Europe, GCHQ officials were forced to publicly testify for the first time before Parliament, and an EU Parliamentary inquiry earlier this year concluded NSA/GCHQ activities were likely illegal. The British agency was also concerned about “damage to partner relationships if sensitive information were accidentally released in open court,” given that such disclosures could make citizens in other countries aware, for the first time, of their government’s involvement in mass surveillance.

The revelations of a global system of blanket surveillance have come as a great surprise to hundreds of millions of citizens around the world whose governments were operating these systems without their knowledge. But they also came as a surprise to many high-ranking political officials in countries around the world who were previously ignorant of those programs, a fact which the NSA seems to view as quite valuable in ensuring that its surveillance activities remain immune from election outcomes and democratic debate.

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