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Intelligence collusion

Ben KnightNovember 4, 2013

The latest Snowden revelation - that Britain's GCHQ actively helped its European counterparts to circumvent surveillance law - seems to have embarrassed governments who previously professed outrage at NSA activities.

Bildnummer: 60652755 Datum: 05.06.2009 Copyright: imago/Robert Michael US - Praesident Barack Obama (li.) und Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel (CDU) nach einer Pressekonferenz am Freitag (05.06.09) im Dresdner Schlosshof. Foto: robertmichaelphoto.de/Robert Michael People Politik xdp x0x 2009 quer Abgang Abhoeren Abhoerskandal Fahne Fahnen Format NSA Politik Praesident quer Querformat Symbolbild Symbolik umarmen sich Umarmung US Praesident USA USA Fahne von hinten 60652755 Date 05 06 2009 Copyright Imago Robert Michael U.S. President Barack Obama left and Chancellor Angela Merkel CDU after a Press conference at Friday 05 06 09 in Dresdner Schloßhof Photo de Robert Michael Celebrities politics XDP x0x 2009 horizontal Finish Flag Flags Format NSA politics President horizontal Landscape Symbol image Symbolism hug to Hug U.S. President USA USA Flag from rear
Image: imago/Robert Michael

It's not often that senior security officials get to quote Hollywood movies before Congress, but the opportunity must have seemed too good to miss. "Some of this reminds me of the classic movie Casablanca: 'My God, there's gambling going on here,' " James Clapper, US director of national intelligence, told Congress last Tuesday (29.10.2013), quoting the movie's French Captain Renault, who conducts a raid on a gambling den that he is himself involved in.

Clapper was referring to the outrage expressed by certain European governments over revelations about the US National Security Agency. Those governments, he said, knew perfectly well that eavesdropping on the conversations of foreign leaders, even allies, was a basic tenet of tradecraft - indeed, it was one of the first things he had learned during his training in the 1960s.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee April 18, 2013 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony on worldwide threats faced by the country. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
James Clapper was reminded of the film CasablancaImage: Getty Images

Four days later, Clapper was vindicated by yet another revelation culled from the Edward Snowden leaks - albeit one related to a different aspect of intelligence work: the mass surveillance of ordinary citizens by their own intelligence agencies.

Working together

On Saturday, the UK's Guardian newspaper revealed a Government Communications Headquarters document, which it said amounted to "a school report" on its counterparts in Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and Sweden. The document detailed the extent of GCHQ's cooperation with those agencies, and revealed working relationships that seemed to function much better than the one between diplomats of those countries.

It also showed that Britain's GCHQ was the NSA's primary partner in Europe, partly because the UK's geographic position made it the gateway to the transatlantic data flow.

Though it is unsurprising that allied intelligence agencies cooperate and share information, the document did reveal a new facet of the relationship. "What we weren't previously aware of was the level of collusion when it comes to getting round surveillance law," Privacy International spokesman Mike Rispoli told DW. "We can't really be sure, but what we can infer is that when government officials discuss information sharing, they say, 'look at our laws here, look at what we're doing, look how lax our surveillance law is here, … you should get on board with this.' "

Re-interpreting laws

There was a particular example of this in Germany. "We already had the suspicion that the BND [Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the ed.] could interpret the G-10 law differently to how the legislators intended it," Markus Beckedahl, spokesman for German digital rights group Digitale Gesellschaft, told DW.

The G-10 law refers to the tenth article of the German constitution - the Grundgesetz - which is intended to regulate the BND's surveillance powers. In 2001, this was amended for the digital age, and decreed that only "20 percent" of the Internet could be monitored by the agency.

"But you can read this formulation differently, so that only 20 percent of data capacity can be monitored," said Beckedahl. "Since so much data on the Internet is useless, the BND could suddenly in effect monitor 100 percent of the Internet. The Guardian article said that the British intelligence agency recommended that the BND re-interpret the law."

Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham is seen in this undated handout aerial photograph. The Guardian newspaper reported on June 7, 2013 that Britain's eavesdropping and security agency, GCHQ, had been secretly gathering intelligence from a secret programme involving the internet companies code-named PRISM and had had access to the system since at least June 2010. GCHQ said in an emailed statement to Reuters: "Our work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate". Reuters/Handout (BRITAIN - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS BUSINESS TELECOMS) NO SALES. NO ARCHIVES. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
GCHQ helped their colleagues circumvent surveillance lawsImage: Reuters

All this, Beckedahl explained, had not previously been known, partly because all parliamentary requests for information on the issue had been denied on the grounds that BND activities were classified.

Diplomatic nightmare

Of course, the new revelation also opens up European governments to the charge of hypocrisy - especially Chancellor Angela Merkel herself, who raised diplomatic hell two weeks ago when it emerged that her own cell phone had been monitored by the NSA. Given the depth of collusion between the allies, was this outrage genuine or as phony as the bluster coming from the French official in Casablanca? "Without knowing the intentions of any official - we would assume that James Clapper knows what he's talking about," said Rispoli.

At the same time, the diplomatic nightmare that Snowden has created is self-evident enough. "I think the reaction from Chancellor Merkel, and from the French government before that, about how the NSA has affected them personally, has been interesting given that they haven't reacted as strongly when it comes to the privacy of their citizens," said Rispoli. "That's the bigger problem - it's not that they're spying on Merkel, it's that you'd expect that level of outrage when it comes to their citizens as well," he added.

Beckedahl agreed: "We are Angela Merkel, and Angela Merkel is us."