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.
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.
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.
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.' "
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."
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.
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."