The NSA is a big,
well-funded intelligence agency
but has no authority to deport anyone.
by Peter Galbraith
As a US diplomat and UN official, I operated with the certain knowledge that the host country intelligence service – and, possibly, other services – listened to my calls. And as for anyone else, many of these calls dealt with personal matters. So, I have sympathy for Europeans who are outraged by revelations that the NSA invaded their privacy by monitoring hundreds of millions of calls.
But how serious is the invasion of privacy? The NSA can vacuum up huge quantities of data but that doesn’t mean it is useful. Most of us lead lives that are of no interest to any intelligence agency and, even for persons of interest, most conversations and email are of no intelligence value. I always felt sympathy for the Croatian analysts who reviewed recorded conversations from my residence phone. Even excluding the conversations between my teenage son and his friends, most of the calls would have been inconsequential and boring. Even I fell asleep on some of my calls. For most of us, the sheer volume of data gathered by the NSA is the best assurance of privacy.
Europeans are mindful – in a way Americans, with their different history, are not – of how totalitarian regimes maintained extensive files on their citizens and, more importantly, how they used the data. An unguarded comment in an intercepted phone call could lead to a concentration camp or gulag, or worse.
And not only the speaker was at risk. A listener who failed to report on the speaker might meet the same fate. And even those who informed could be deported for consorting with a state enemy.
The NSA is a big, well-funded intelligence agency but it has no means to deport anyone. And even if the NSA intercepts uncover criminal activity, intercepts gathered without a warrant cannot be used in a criminal proceeding in the United States or any European country (except, possibly, Belarus).
I have less sympathy for European leaders who are “shocked” to learn that the US is eavesdropping on them. Europeans also spy on Americans and, in the case of the French, this is well-documented. Some have suggested that European leaders are mostly outraged because their collection capabilities do not match America’s. (In this regard, British officials have been tellingly quiet.)
But it may also be that European agencies do it quite well. There is, however, no European version of Edward Snowden to tell us. And if Angela Merkel uses an unsecured cellphone, she should not be surprised that the NSA intercepts it.
But it may not just be the NSA: I suspect her text messages and phone calls may be of far greater interest to Greek intelligence than to the US. (And I would be amazed if Germany’s intelligence agency, the BND, was not tapping the phones of the US ambassador and CIA station chief in Berlin.)
Europeans might imagine that this intelligence-gathering gives the US an enormous advantage in the conduct of its foreign policy, but that is not necessarily the case. Phone calls, emails, and text messages have to be interpreted in context. When Chancellor Merkel texts her defence minister, she is communicating in a form of code.
To break the code – that is, to comprehend fully the meaning of the words – the analyst needs to understand the personal and political relationship between the two, as well as all the previous discussions and decisions on the issue. But the analyst is never someone who knows Merkel or her minister and, however good their knowledge of Germany might be (and quite often, it is not that good), this is not the same as knowing the people involved.
Ironically, the more important the intelligence target, the less experience those analysing the intelligence actually have. One reason US intelligence on Iraq was so dramatically wrong before the 2003 war is that the analysts had never been there and therefore had no feel for the country.
Intercepts only tell you so much, but because the US government pays so much to get this information, it has a weight in the policy-making process that is often unwarranted.
I experienced this firsthand as US ambassador to Croatia during the Croatia and Bosnia wars. At critical junctures in these wars, the CIA misestimated Croatian intentions and capabilities. In making their assessments, CIA analysts relied heavily on the NSA’s electronic intercepts, as well as paid spies and other intelligence sources.
I saw this information but I also relied on what Croatian leaders told me and on what I observed on the ground. But because the US government paid billions for its intelligence, I had a hard time persuading Washington that the intelligence was wrong, even when it deviated from common sense.
In the field of intelligence, more is not necessarily better. In order to collect, analyse and use the vast quantities of data, the US government provides security clearances to hundreds of thousands of government employees and contractors. The Obama administration is in its current mess because Booz Allen Hamilton, a contractor doing billions of dollars of secret work for the government, gave a troubled 29-year-old high school graduate access to a vast array of secrets. The system is in need of reform and the smaller, more agile European services may be a model. After all, espionage is not just about collecting secrets but also keeping them. THE GUARDIAN