Does U.S Espionage Cause Us More Harm Than Good?

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Espionage In The 21st Century: Intelligence Analysis Vs Covert Actions

The biggest disappointment as a young man looking for a way to use my international relations degrees in my career was discovering the truth about espionage.

The glamorous world of 007, with the amazing gadgets, the beautiful women and the evil geniuses is largely a product of Ian Fleming’s imagination amplified by Hollywood’s special effects. In truth, being an intelligence officer is tedious, bureaucratic and underpaid. It’s more the world of Le Carre’s George Smiley than Fleming’s James Bond.

When I say espionage, I mean two things at once: intelligence gathering and analysis, and covert actions. The 007 films are clearly in the latter category, and even there, where there really are Moscow Rules, hidden cameras and poisoned umbrella tips, most of the work is waiting for things to happen – about as exciting as watching paint dry.

While covert actions are the same as ever, intelligence gathering has undergone a huge change in the last generation or two. Until quite recently, the secret to spying was to find out the other side’s secret and report back to headquarters. The other side kept its secrets under lock and key, and getting a diplomat drunk, bribed or otherwise influenced to help was the way to get the key.

These days, the trick is no longer to get the enemy’s secrets. Now, the difficulty is combing through the huge pile of information that you can collect to determine what, if anything, has any intelligence value at all. While this change has stood the intelligence game on its head, our approach to policy about espionage is still stuck in the 1950s. A re-assessment is long overdue, and under the threat of terrorism and with the seemingly endless expansion of the Internet into our daily lives, that reassessment is becoming critical to the kind of society we have.

What Is The Morality Behind Espionage?

One of the keys to a good spy story is the moral relativism that the characters face, and this stems from the real life ambiguity of the profession. At the heart of espionage lies deceit, which we are taught as children is wrong. However, it is deceit in the pursuit of national security, and we are also taught patriotism early in life. The adage that a diplomat is a man who goes abroad to lie for his country is doubly true of spies.

There was a time when American political leaders took the view that such deceit was something beneath the Republic. In 1929, Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson closed down the State Departments code-breaking group saying “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.”

Regrettably the decade after that, we discovered that Mussolini, Hitler, Tojo and Stalin weren’t gentlemen.

The job of intelligence gathering and analyzing the data is more or less what journalists, academics and cable TV pundits do just as surely as intelligence officers. The difference is that the first professions want to tell everyone what they have discovered, while those in intelligence want to be in on a secret while keeping the public’s attention elsewhere.

The morality of learning things and figuring out what they mean is only clouded by the means used to acquire the knowledge. Being told something by a confidential source is morally dubious only if you have used some form of coercion to secure it.

Slightly more morally suspect is intercepting a message, gentlemen literally or figuratively reading other people’s mail. Opening mail addressed to others, tapping phones and bugging rooms are all part of espionage. But they are certainly not the kind of things you do if you aren’t doing them for your country.

Cyberattacks: The New Field Of Espionage

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Image Source: Atmel

To that we can add a new method of intelligence gathering – hacking into a database. Stealing the secrets of others by computer is a new method of espionage, and it is one that blurs the line between the organized crime and governments. An important new book in computer security Cyberphobia by Edward Lucas of the Economist explains in laymen’s terms just how open to exploitation we are, not just individuals but top-secret government bodies as well.

Perhaps the moral qualms about cyberattacks are aggravated by the fact that they can also be covert actions. As Lucas and others point out, it is not inconceivable that hackers could attack power grids, banking networks or other sensitive areas. The computer is both a means of intelligence gathering and covert action.

And yet, the US and Israel scored a major success against Iran’s nuclear program with the Stuxnet virus. Some credit the damage this virus did to Iran’s centrifuges that enriched uranium with helping to bring the Iran nuclear deal to fruition. Almost no one in the US or Israel, or many other countries save Iran, seem to suffer sleepless nights for what was a covert action via computer.

I believe that ambivalence stems in large part from the fact that Iran’s government has no fans in the halls of power in the US, and few in those of America’s allies. In short, we deem the mullahs are bad guys: you don’t need to hold yourself to the same level of gentlemanly behavior as you do with other good guys. In any ethics class, that probably gets you a failing grade, but that’s how we seem to operate in the real world.

The Five Eyes Alliance

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Image Source: Wsj

But what about spying on other good guys? Lord Palmerston said that nations do not have friends, they only have interests.

But nations are made of people, and people do have friends. In America’s case, there are a few very special friends. Having been forged in the Second World War, five major English-speaking countries share massive amounts of intelligence. The so-called “Five Eyes” alliance is a “secretive, global surveillance arrangement of States comprised of the United States National Security Agency (NSA), the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters(GCHQ), Canada’s Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), and New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB).”

As a senior British intelligence officer stated, “When you get a GCHQ pass it gives you access to the NSA too. You can walk into the NSA and find GCHQ staff holding senior management positions, and vice versa. When the NSA has a piece of intelligence, it will very often ask GCHQ for a second opinion. There have been ups and downs over the years, of course. But in general, the NSA and GCHQ are extremely close allies. They rely on each other.”

If you look at the documents Edwards Snowden leaked, huge numbers of them had the header“TOP SECRET//COMINT//REL TO USA, AUS, CAN, GBR, NZL” or “TOP SECRET//COMINT//REL TO USA, FVEY.” Translated from spook-speak, that means “Top Secret Communications Intelligence related to the USA, Australia, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand” and “Top Secret Communications Intelligence related to the USA, Five Eyes.”

The US also has close, but not as close, intelligence relations with members of NATO, the State of Israel, Japan and the non-NATO Nordic nations.

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Spying On A Close Ally

Do not expect a global surveillance superpower to act with honour or respect. There is only one rule: there are no rules.” – Julian Assange, WikiLeaks

But if, as Palmerston said, nations have interests, and if those interests clash in some way with those of a close ally, what do you do?

Well, if the spying is never uncovered, clearly it is an advantage to spy even on a close ally. But given the Snowden leaks, the pressure from the press, and the counterintelligence organizations in allied nations, getting away with spying on an ally becomes problematic. Yes, there is a short-term gain, but it can damage the broader relationship. Chancellor Merkel phoned President Obama in 2013 to yell at him over personally being spied on by US intelligence.

It is virtually impossible to believe that the US gained more than it lost from that episode. Yet, I firmly believe close allies will spy on each other anyway. Espionage agencies tend to be highly compartmentalized to prevent serious leaks across a broad spectrum of issues, and so often intelligence officers don’t consider the big picture. If my career is based on finding out what Dr. Merkel thinks of specific US policy, that’s where my focus will be, not on the Berlin-Washington relationship as a whole.

Covert Operations Against Allies 

Covert operations against an ally, though, is more serious than merely snooping. One of the prime examples of this was an incident involving France and New Zealand in 1985. The Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior was anchored in Auckland, New Zealand, and Greenpeace had made it clear it was going to try to disrupt a French nuclear test in Muroroa.

Two agents of the Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure (DGSE, France’s main intelligence agency) planted limpet mines on the vessel and sank it. Although it was an attack by France on Greenpeace (that in itself was a problem), New Zealanders didn’t draw that distinction – the French sank a ship in Auckland harbor, period. The French reputation in New Zealand has not completely recovered even 30 years on.

When States Spy On Their Populations

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Senator Joseph McCarthy-Image Source: likesuccess

“The impact of this poor, mentally, alcoholic son of a bitch and what he did to the United States, that naughty old Joe McCarthy…I could never forgive that guy”-Frank Zappa, on an interview

Like most other nations, America has always spied on itself, too. These counterintelligence actions are designed to thwart the actions of hostile powers, but the FBI and local police engage in intelligence gathering and covert actions against the mob (think FBI man Joseph Pistone infiltrating the mafia as Donnie Brasco)

While going after organized crime is laudable, these same agencies have used these same approaches to address political dissenters. We have the Palmer raids of 1919 and 1920 attacks on communists or non-communists suspected of pro-Moscow sympathies in the 1950s (the most Un-American thing I can think of is the House Un-American Activities Committee) and the anti-jihadi surveillance of American Muslims after the Al Qaeda murders in 2001.

These have three things in common.

First, they tend not to catch anyone who is truly intent on harming us. Most of the people caught in the net are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Secondly, they tend to be minorities and newcomers (Sacco and Vanzetti were executed for being Italian as much as being anarchists; Jews were disproportionately targeted by McCarthy in the 1950s, and Muslims are far from a majority in the US today). Third, they occur at times when the country is fearful (basically, most of the time). I can’t imagine the draconian and misnamed Patriot Act being passed on September 10, 2001. Have a few thousand people killed, and suddenly, the eyes have it.

Privacy Is Becoming More Illusory Every Day

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Image Source: Cagle

Again, computers make the situation much different than it was just a few years ago. It is incredible just how many security cameras take your picture on any given day; in the US, it’s 75 times. In the UK, it’s 300.

It’s not so much that Big Brother is watching you, but Citibank, The Gap and the slightly paranoid next door neighbor with the security cameras at his front door who have your picture with a time stamp on it. That would be only mildly irritating, but as noted earlier, computer hacking can access loads of data from loads of places.

North Korean intelligence probably doesn’t care one whit about me (if they even know I exist), but if someone there got a bee in his bonnet about something I wrote, they could probably hack their way into video databases that could be used to track my daily movements. And if not North Korea, then the FBI could get it with a court order.

Spying on Politicians

Where this universal surveillance is diametrically opposed to democratic governance is in the ability of intelligence agencies to spy on our elected officials. The first director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, had a file on every major politician in the nation. There was a reason he was not removed from office throughout several presidencies. Hoover couldn’t prevent JFK from getting elected, but he could make damn sure the president’s dalliances with ladies other than his wife was a constant threat over the White House plans.

Today, the ability of anyone in intelligence to spy on a politician give him or her access to much more than Hoover ever had. If the NSA can spy on Angela Merkel, surely it can spy on Congress. A year or so ago Senator Bernie Sanders asked in a short letter to Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA director, “Has the NSA spied, or is the NSA currently spying, on members of Congress or other American elected officials?”

The response from the NSA did not deny the accusations, but simply stated that the privacy protections that all US citizens enjoy extend to members of Congress.

The statement read:

“NSA’s authorities to collect signals intelligence data include procedures that protect the privacy of US persons. Such protections are built into and cut across the entire process. Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all US persons. NSA is fully committed to transparency with Congress. Our interaction with Congress has been extensive both before and since the media disclosures began last June.”

I hold little affection for Congressman Jason Chaffets of Utah, but I am horrified by the fact that the Secret Service leaked information about his unsuccessful application for a job with the Service. “It’s a little bit scary. The Secret Service diving into my background as a sitting member of Congress? It’s not about me, but it is about: What are they doing over there? These people are trusted with guns by the president for goodness’ sake.”

If our elected officials are held in check by those with access to information that they would prefer to keep quiet, the threat of exposure undermines the very basis of democracy – that the representative actually represents the voters.

Short-Term Gains Create Long-Term Problems

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Image Source: Aljazeera

As suggested throughout this piece, there is tendency in espionage to focus on short-term gains and to ignore the long-term consequences of an action. The case of American spying on Angela Merkel is a relatively minor one, and the basic relationship was strong enough that repairing it was possible. But that was also just intelligence gathering. Covert actions against a foreign power, ally or enemy, tends to carry far greater danger in the long term than most intelligence officers and analysts consider at the time the decision is made to give the project a green light.

State Power and Corporate Gains: A Trail Of Blood

Iran: 1953

Consider the US-assisted coup d’etat against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh in 1953.

Mosaddegh nationalized the oil fields in Iran, and that upset Britain and the US whose oil companies lost out. In 1952, President Truman turned down a plot to overthrow him, but in 1953, President Eisenhower gave his approval to the plan. He was afraid that the nationalization would harm western access to the oil and that would bolster the global communist menace.

Former US Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said a few years ago, “The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons. But the coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development. And it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.” Indeed, they resented it so much that when the Shah was overthrown in 1979, the US embassy was occupied and diplomats held hostage for 444 days. Even in 2015, the incident rankles among Iranians of all political stripes.

Guatemala: 1954

The coup against Mosaddegh was not the only time that America’s corporations benefited from US covert actions, or as some argue, sparked them. Guatemala in 1954 experienced a coup against its elected government, engineered by the CIA. The reason was the threat posed by the Arbenz government to the stranglehold the United Fruit Company had over the country. “United Fruit Company gained control of forty-two percent of Guatemala’s land, and was exempted from taxes and import duties.

The three main enterprises in Guatemala — United Fruit Company, International Railways of Central America, and Empress Electrica — were American-owned (and controlled by United Fruit Company). Seventy-seven percent of all exports went to the US and sixty-five percent of imports came from the US.” The coup protected United Fruit’s position for years to come.

Chile: 1973

The 1973 coup against Salvador Allende in Chile was another example of this phenomenon. General Pinochet had Allende killed and took over as president. The head of Chile’s secret DINA police force, Manuel Contreras was on the CIA payroll, and he came to Washington during the height of human rights abuses because the US state department had specific tasks for him. “Contreras was also asked to check in with Anaconda and General Motors to encourage them to resume operations in Chile.”

Conspiracies Do Not Exist: They Already Form Part Of The System 

Some hold with the idea of conspiracies among American corporate leaders and American political leaders. Having been in politics and the private sector for more years than I care to remember, I don’t. What I believe goes on is, in many ways, much worse for the public. American corporations and the American government have interests that overlap so much that a conspiracy is unnecessary. What need is there to conspire if everyone is pursuing the same interest of their own accord?

And again, the computer is making the link between corporations and government that much closer. Some nations, e.g., China, don’t distinguish much between their government’s interests and the interests of their commercial classes. There are few if any walls between the spies and the C-suite of a nation’s companies.

On paper, China is a communist state meaning that the government and the corporate powers there are one and the same. Even with the less-than-rigorous communism the Chinese practice (what communist system has billionaires, stock exchanges and property developers?), the People’s Republic treats foreign commercial secrets and foreign political secrets the same way.

What Has Been The Role Of Technology?

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Image Source: Businessinsider

In the US, the barriers between government and business are less porous, but Google and the NSA are in more or less the same business – searching for information. Indeed, that is the basis of a European Court case that has determined a 15-year-old agreement that allows European data to be stored by companies on servers in the US is at risk from spying.

However, things are more closely intertwined than most people believe. There are no fewer than 17 separate intelligence agencies in the US government. The Department of Energy has an office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence.

Its website says:

“The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence is responsible for all intelligence and counterintelligence activities throughout the DOE complex, including nearly thirty intelligence and counterintelligence offices nationwide.

The Office protects vital national security information and technologies, representing intellectual property of incalculable value. Our distinctive contribution to national security is the ability to leverage the Energy Department’s unmatched scientific and technological expertise in support of policymakers as well as national security missions in defense, homeland security, cyber security, intelligence, and energy security.”

Technology Has Run Well Ahead Of Our Social Structures

And who else is involved in US energy security? American oil and coal companies, American nuclear power firms, and American renewable energy firms. If you don’t believe this office doesn’t provide unofficial guidance to those companies which gives them a commercial advantage, then it’s not really doing its job.

Furthermore, the US does have companies that work intimately with the government in national security issues. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, etc. all make state-of-the-art weapons for Uncle Sam, and if Army or Naval Intelligence finds out something that could render one of their programs obsolete, national security demands that information is shared with the company – free market be damned.

This survey of intelligence in the 21st century is big on questions and I admit there are almost no answers I have offered. That is in large part because no one has the answers. How do you reconcile free market international economics with national security needs in a world with Al Qaeda and ISIS? How can computers be a tool for communication while ensuring that the data on them is secure? Is there such a thing as privacy any more?

Our technology has run well ahead of our social structures for decades now – it is only going to get worse if we don’t start figuring out how to manage the stresses technological development places on our democracy, our workplaces, and our daily lives. And the clock is ticking.


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