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It is certainly wrong to perceive as foul play the intelligence activity carried out by an Agency against a friendly counterpart. It is in the nature of intelligence agencies to obtain information on anything that can be considered newsworthy to their national security. Such an activity does not foresee any limits, does not distinguish between friends or foes and is carried out by all means necessary. If this were not the case, policing would be sufficient. Apart from national security, there is another parameter at play in the world of intelligence: It's not ethics, but self-interest. That is, Agencies can collaborate if their interests collide, but they could also be on opposing sides if they don't.

Such a circumstance postulates that the idea of a unique European intelligence agency is, to say the least, extravagant. What the European Union can do is push for a stricter collaboration between Agencies on specific topics, knowing that national interests will prevail over the ones of the community of States. It is in this context that Europe is possibly thinking about the creation of a coordination mechanism to tackle terrorism. The point is that States will share only what they want. There will be no automatism. So, apart from Europol and its police coordination activities, little will be done in the intelligence sector.

This premise helps explain why we should not be surprised or angered to hear the United States tapped the communications of Chancellor Angela Merkel, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, Brazilian President Dilma Roussef, alongside side with Japanese politicians, the governor of the Central Bank, Haruhiko Kuroda, and corporations such as Mitsubishi. On the Italian front, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was intercepted together with his closest aides. The National Security Agency (NSA) has a representative in Rome, it has two listening posts managed by the Special Collection Service: one in its embassy in the Italian capital and another one in its Consulate in Milan. Both are well known to Italian security services. To seem surprised, seek explanations or recall the ambassador is just part of the comedy.

It should also not come as a surprise that a former Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), the German Federal Intelligence Service, agent is on trial in Monaco for selling secrets to the CIA. The same happened to Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard that worked for the Mossad. He spent 30 years or so behind bars in the US before being freed in November 2015. Despite Israel's insistence, he is still not allowed to leave the United States because the Americans feel “betrayed” by a friendly Agency.

They are such good friends that, since the year 2000 and from the island of Cyprus, British and Americans were spying on Israeli drones and airplanes. Their communications were tapped from a base in the middle of the Mediterranean. The interception program came in handy when Tel Aviv pondered whether to strike Iran to sabotage the talks on its nuclear program. When the news came out, Israel said it was “disappointed”, but not surprised, as we all know the US listens to just about everyone.

The bottom line is: we may not like our friends spying on us, but ethics and sovereignty miss the point. And we always have to keep in mind that this is an open competition: sometimes you're the victim, sometimes the aggressor. Once you spy on, the next you're spied upon.

No one can claim to be innocent. German resentment against the NSA was short-lived. A report from the Der Spiegel magazine exposed how the Germans were listening on the communications of foreign embassies on their soil from Sweden, Italy, the Vatican, Switzerland, the United States, Portugal and France. NGOs such as Oxfam and the International Red Cross were also targeted, along with the US, Polish, Austrian, Danish and Croatian Ministries of Interior. Everyone was under the spell of the BND. In other words, what the CIA and NSA did to Merkel, the Germans did to their friends. An NSAgate followed by a BNDgate.

bad aibling
Bad Aibling base

This entire sequence of events illustrates how global intelligence networks work. The NSA used the Bad Aibling base given to them by the Germans for its electronic espionage. From Bavaria, the radars intercepted communications to Syria, Iraq, Libya or Afghanistan. At the same time, the NSA used the same facilities to tap German politicians. Yet, the BND was using that same base to acquire the conversations of a succession of French Presidents, including Jaques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande. And who has shown the Germans how to decrypt communications? The French.

In the name of the Franco-German cooperation, the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE) taught their colleagues from the BND how to penetrate codified communications and, unknowingly, helped them listen to their President. The irony is that no one put an end to the foul play. Since at least 2008, the BND had told political authorities that it knew the Americans were violating the deal. But someone decided it was more convenient not to interfere.

France has said it is “unacceptable to spy on allies”. The same statement came from Merkel, who claims “spying friends: we shouldn't do it”. Are the US then the only ones to blame? Every time a politician complains about being tapped, he or she often forgets that any international activity, and especially diplomacy, requires the knowledge of what your friends or foes think. Authorities often omit to say that they are the ones that task intelligence agencies with finding out information on people, economic deals and so forth. Do they wonder how these infos are gathered? Did Angela Merkel complain when she read the diplomatic correspondence of friendly countries or the Red Cross? Would have she objected to reading the transcripts of the phone calls from French presidents as the CIA and NSA did? We doubt it.

In this entire affair the NSA has “officially” been named the culprit. But they didn't act alone. Other nations were part of the program. The British General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) works closely with its US counterparts in monitoring communications. As Edward Snowden pointed out, they can control any flow via radio, telephone or the internet, all over the world through the Echelon and Prism programs.

There are also other English speaking intelligence agencies that collaborate with both the NSA and the GCHQ: the Australian Signals Directorate, the Canadian Communications Security Establishment, the Government Communications Security Bureau from New Zealand. Since interceptions require the maximum degree of secrecy on who is the target and how the tapping is carried out, whoever is part of the system also has access to the information that's acquired. And no dispatch is ever handed out unless there is a specific reason to do so. Other Agencies are granted information on a case by case basis or on the basis of bilateral deals.

In other words, whatever the NSA gathered on Merkel, Hollande, Berlusconi or Roussef was shared among these five agencies. No one had the slightest moral or professional dilemma when it came to acquiring this information. On the other hand, these five countries know how interception is carried out. They hence also know what the weak points of the system are and how to defend themselves from intrusions.

kouachi brothers

One could object that it could have been more useful to dedicate these efforts to intercepting the terrorists that attacked Paris on November 13, 2015. After all, Europol has a list of 3 to 5 thousand foreign fighters that have returned form Syria and Iraq. But this is a misleading question: intelligence agencies are perfectly capable of handling both. Nonetheless, we know everything about Merkel's phone calls and nothing about the ones by Salah Abdeslam and Abdelhamid Abaaoud in Paris, or the Kouachi brothers prior to Charlie Hebdo.

The point is: anything can be intercepted, but not everything is of interest. Selection is an unsolved issue. However, the most interesting conversations are generally encrypted. This is what embassies or security forces employ when dispatching their communications. Telephones also have their encryption systems, the most effective ones being the point-to-point ones that utilize the same program. Politicians have the need to communicate, often by cellphone, and thus they don't always use encrypted means of communication.

On February 25, 2016, US President Barack Obama signed a law that grants foreign citizens from friendly countries the same privacy as US citizens. Despite the political scope of the initiative, it is self-evident that if US national security is at stake, no one will be safe from interceptions. And there is no doubt that the mass surveillance programs will not be dismantled.

The one mistake done by both the NSA and the BND deserves a final consideration. Any intelligence agency is more efficient the more secretive it is. The US agency was exposed first by Wikileaks and Julian Assange and then by Edward Snowden. The BND was put in the spotlight by a German weekly magazine. In both cases the systems failed to monitor and protect from leaks. This is the one aspect we should stigmatize: it is not what they were doing, but that they got caught doing it.

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