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How America Eavesdrops on Allies
The NSA's global surveillance power is unmatched—and even our friends are uneasy.
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The shock being registered by various European foreign ministries over the revelation that the United States has been intercepting their communications, both public and governmental, is in reality a bit of a theatrical performance to soothe the nerves of their domestic audiences, which are demanding that something be done to preserve privacy. But it also reveals a growing estrangement between Washington and its closest allies over the U.S. tendency to exploit security concerns and ride roughshod over local interests. President Obama, referring to reports that the European Union headquarters and United Nations diplomatic mission, as well as the French Embassy in Washington, have been subject to electronic intrusion, has shrugged off the controversy, noting that “everyone does it.”

In reality, everyone knows about what is going on, but only the major nations can afford to do it. The developing story of National Security Agency (NSA) spying on Americans has revealed that almost no one in the United States can any longer rely on the privacy of personal communications. But domestic spying is only part of a vast worldwide operation that has been growing since World War II. The NSA, bigger than the CIA and with a much larger budget, has overseas listening posts, just like CIA Stations, which are normally hidden in U.S. Embassies and consulates. They are often placed under the roof of the building because the antennas collecting information are normally located—in plain sight—just above.

Many local people looking at the array of dishes and masts assume that the equipment is for diplomatic communications, but their governments and security services certainly know better, because every U.S. Embassy overseas employs numerous locals, often in sensitive positions. They are referred to as Foreign Service Nationals (FSN), and it is not unusual to find them spending their entire working lives employed by the Americans. Most carefully protect American interests, so much so that it is easy to forget that they are not U.S. citizens. But inevitably some of them can be assumed to be the recruited agents of their own governments, routinely reporting back to their security services on what the Yanks are up to. The FSNs, who frequently provide all the administrative services for the building, are fully aware of the size and location of the NSA presence in the building, meaning their government knows as well.

Because intercepting private communications is illegal almost everywhere in the world, the overseas NSA facilities are under deep cover and are never acknowledged to exist. Even within the U.S. government, the NSA is jokingly described as “No such agency.” NSA employees are rarely diplomats but are instead usually given nominal job descriptions as technical or administrative officers of the Embassy. This gives them some legal protection if they should get in trouble and since they normally work deep within the Embassy building they rarely need anything more extensive. In a place like Rome, their office did not even exist on the floor plan or in the Embassy phone book. It did not even bother to have the usual Defense Department or commercial section euphemism as cover within the building since it did not want Italians calling it up and asking for information. It was generally referred to by the American staff in the Embassy as the extension of the internal telephone that it used—444.

One might well ask why the U.S. government would have NSA stations in the capitals of nations like Italy, Spain, Germany, and France, which are friends and even allies without any geographical propinquity to countries or targets considered to be hostile. The answer would very much depend on the operating directive (I am using the CIA term) of the listening post. The OD prioritizes targets and assigns available resources. In most places today the prime target would be under the broad rubric of terrorism. Other targets might include the local Russian, Chinese, and Iranian Embassies, whose diplomatic and commercial communications might be recorded and broken to be read by interested parties in Washington.

Illegality aside, an Italian or Spanish government would not object too strongly to narrowly focused terrorism-related information being obtained from the ethersphere. Nor would anyone be surprised if attempts were being made to intercept old enemies, including the Russians, just like during the Cold War. But the collection process is not that simple. The NSA vacuums in vast quantities of telephone, email, and other electronic information based on computer-generated linkages, which means that if someone makes a phone call, that number too becomes part of the search base and so on until millions of numbers eventually become linked. The guesstimate that hundreds of millions of German communications are being collected and analyzed by the United States government each month is therefore probably far too low.

And then there is the rather more contentious issue, alluded to by Obama, of government-on-government spying. If you are breaking out telephone calls you can just as easily collect information from phones and internet systems that support the government infrastructure since they all eventually pass through the same communications hubs. Careless talk on open government lines can produce a windfall of information. With a little more effort provided by specialized computers, you can even crack into the secure phones and databases.

Obama’s assertion that when he wants to know what is happening in Germany he picks up the phone and calls Chancellor Angela Merkel is characteristically facile but ultimately irrelevant. U.S. policymakers have an interest in secret German negotiating positions on trade agreements as well as on internal debates relating to likely responses to Washington’s initiatives in places like Afghanistan. Admittedly the need for such information is not critical, but the NSA often collects intelligence on an opportunity basis just because the mechanisms that exist enable it to do so without any particular degradation of its coverage of genuine priority targets. In short, much electronic intelligence collection takes place just because it is possible, not because there is any clear objective in mind.

Do the German BND, Turkey’s MIT, and Italy’s SISMI avail themselves of opportunities to listen in on U.S. Embassy phone calls in their respective countries? They certainly do, but no one does it like the Americans, and efforts to suggest that there is some kind reciprocity in bad behavior are misleading. The NSA has the ability and resources to enable it to listen to everyone all the time, friend or foe, and its willingness to engage in collection operations that have no particular focus is perhaps a measure of how the burgeoning national-security state is incessantly searching for new enemies to expand its role. No one should be surprised that Washington routinely spies on friendly foreign diplomatic missions, but it does run the danger that allies can gradually become enemies if a growing perception in Europe and elsewhere that the U.S. is engaging in unrestrained and pointless behavior continues apace.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Government Surveillance 
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  1. Escher says:

    There are no permanent friends or allies, only the permanent interests of the military-industrial-Wall Street complex.

  2. Johann says:

    Since we are reportedly excluding the English speaking countries from direct phone & internet surveillance, it falls flat that we value the rest of our allies as close friends and for them not to worry. America has been losing its soft power gradually over the last few decades, but now it will take a plunge. Its all so neocon foolish. Antagonizing the rest of the world will turn out badly, no matter how powerful we think we are. Not to mention the complete waste of money for irrational fears of terrorism.

  3. Jim Bovard says: • Website

    Thanks for the excellent analysis, Phil. I reckon Obama is overdue to give another speech denouncing people who distrust the U.S. government.

  4. Someone should tell that spoilsport Snowden to stop asking everybody and their dog for asylum: people might actually add one and one and get the wrong impression that their „sovereign“ governments were in the know right from the beginning …

  5. As Henry Stimson said “Gentlemen do not read each others mail.”

    I think an underlying element to all this dates from around the same era (1918). That is the perception that electronic communications, given that they propagate through the atmosphere, are inherently less private than tangible, written ones. Anyone can pick up a radio transmission and since our telephone calls now are transmitted through the atmosphere via microwave, the idea that they are no longer quite private persists.

    This drive to vacuum up all possible information reminds me of the quip about why bulldogs spend so much time licking their testicles. The answer, because they can. It feels good to know what others are thinking, planning.

    I’m not sure how we deal with the apprehensions of our allies and neutrals. Any government with such God-like ability to know the minds and the feelings of millions, will use this power for bulldog like reasons. So the question might be what do they think we do with this information. Do they believe that we will use it in a sinister, offensive mode, or just defensively? Do they expect us to share our knowledge of their internal affairs with third parties?

    As with anything electronic, the price will come down and the day will come when the secret service of Mauritania will vacuum up all the loose-lipped cell phone babble in the Washington. What they will make of it God only knows.

    Then again, if we sell the info about the Slovaks to the Czechs we may make a little money on the side as it were. As a bankrupt nation I suggest we might do this on a large scale. Only, no payment in dollars, just gold.

  6. No one in their right mind trust the Europeans. And Russia and China are just jealous because we listen to our own people so much better than they listen to theirs.

  7. Aw come on. I was an internet CTO in 2004 and I was appalled by the plans that we were forced to start deploying. At that time, it was real-time content at the push of a button. The capability wasn’t yet there to capture everyone’s conversation for storage forever, due to the technological limitations. Moore’s Law has taken care of that. Everything is being stored, because that capability has been achieved.

    How does an honest internet technologist earn a living, outside the compromised and pervasive surveillance infrastructure?

    Every one of the major companies designated by PRISM has a lucrative contract to supply the user data. These companies are not in business to give free services to the public, but sell to their major customers, of which the private commercial sector is only one segment.

  8. The normally astute Fran Macadam seems to be
    laboring under a stressful misconception:

    “How does an honest internet technologist
    earn a living, outside the compromised and pervasive
    surveillance infrastructure?”

    Nothing exists outside the surveillance infrastructure.
    Nothing material, like the ether.
    Nothing mental, like an idea.

    State spaces cannot exist outside the surveillance grid,
    nor Markets capable of supporting modern economic life.

    Not even the Ghosts of Stateless Persons can flit about
    (there is no lift, without ethernet support;
    no ontological standing, without authenticated passport ;-).

    God created the world inside a surveillance infrastructure
    for a good reason:

    God wants us to be SECURE and HAPPY !!!
    It is God’s will; it is our purpose in life.


    Your eyes are weary. You’ve been reading too much tripe
    from media-fed minds.

    (Understandably, our Benevolent Watchers are far more weary.)

    Notice how restful it is, to watch the cursor blink.
    The opinions above are your own.
    You cannot imagine how you ever thought otherwise.

    Pay no attention to that still small voice below.

    Techno-Ladder status climb;
    “Cool”! Tech-Hamster-Cage sublime.

    Data-mined, your every move;
    “Consumer Paradise” improve.

    “Machine-Learning”; machine gains.
    Your neural-net is what it trains!

    Hamsters restless? Questions grind?
    Download “upgrade” 2 their mind.

    Dark Satanic hamster Mills,
    Dissect our brains; rewire our wills.

    Hamster treadmill, Techno-wheel.
    Why your soul, you let it steal?

  9. edding says:

    Great article. It would be helpful to know if any other country- e.g., Israel, by virtue of the technology it has provided us through such companies as Verint and Converse or also through Israel’s Technion Institute- or corporations, such as Booz Allen Hamilton or Oracle, or providers including ATT, Verizon, or Google, etc.- might be able to vacuum information from the NSA, say through a back door, and then use it for their own political or business advantage. It is not only the web of dragnet programs that sweep up the information for the NSA, but also who in the end has or could have access to the information, and how it might be used or misused that are the problems, legal and otherwise.

  10. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    I think the whole escapade involving European countries blocking Evo Morales’s plane indicates either European countries are complicit with the U.S. or obsequious “little b*tches” (to use prison slang). Major European countries blocked air space to Morales’s flight from the orders of the U.S. ambassador to Austria, William Eacho, former CEO from the real estate investment firm Carelton Capital Group, LLC. Eacho was a big donor and moneyman for Obama.

    On a personal level, the trick is to get off the grid without looking like one is off the grid. I understand that any cessation of monitorable activity (internet, phone, et. al.)– which sets off metadata alarms– results in Big Brotha targeting you as suspicious and deserving of especially close scrutiny. So for now keep making phone calls, sending emails, visiting websites, and sending letters to be photographed and digitized and stored “for law enforcement purposes.”

  11. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    We are all firmly in the grasp of the Hegemon. What it will ultimately do with us has yet to be revealed. In any case, the brutality of inescapable power is upon us. Worse still, it seeks to know the totality of our expressed thoughts, and in so doing profoundly injures and dehumanizes us without ever directly touching us: by awakening in our minds the impotent awareness of our own ‘contingent’ participation in an essentially mathematical exercise–one devoid of all human sentiment–yet worth the weight of all the humanity it traduces because of the ineffable power it bestows on those who possess it, and by which they may ultimately possess us–and not just our mirrored thoughts–with the perfection of the totalitarian enterprise.

  12. NSA employees, whatever else they are doing, are feeding at the public trough. They and all the other legions of spooks and mercenaries are much more lethal parasites than food stamp recipients. When the talk turns to takers and makers why do these ubiquitous, amoral drones get a free pass?


    Thanks for the verse. Consider it stolen.

  14. I posted 2 comments last night, but the one I posted first has not yet appeared. I am re-submitting it here, with a correction:

    Americans cannot admit the centrality of ECONOMIC ESPIONAGE.

    It is too threatening to our naive Free Market ideology;
    too troubling to our comforting conceptual divide
    between Market and State. It invites socially-destabilizing
    questions about exactly which character qualities it takes
    to become Rich — dedicated hard work, or devious deception?

    Or in America the Exceptional, do the intel customers
    for NSA’s product not include many Non-State Actors?

    Cui bono? Who has profited, via the “Innovations”
    that have now trained 2 generations of human sheeple
    to channel their communications into surveillance channels,
    available for data-mined analysis and manipulation
    by powerful public and private-sector institutions?

    And what have we lost, by redefining “Freedom” as Shopping,
    and “Community” as digitally-customized Cognitive Bubbles?

    Obama’s official agenda with the EU nations now includes
    not merely trade talks, but also espionage talks.

    [CORRECTION: Obama may have promised Merkel,
    but — surprise — a comprehensive intel agenda
    was vetoed by those “independent-minded” Brits.
    We respect the sovereign decisions of our
    valued NATO allies … although it seems
    some allies are more sovereign than others.]

    The man-on-the-street in Europe understands
    that these 2 nominally separate issues have
    become so tightly coupled as to be inseparable.

    Personal cognitive traces — permanently precipitated through
    digital channels — have become Corporate intellectual property,
    and the raw material for future indictment by Threat Signature,
    Trial by Algorithm, and execution by drone.

    In the US, the privatization of “National Intel” production
    has been accompanied by the elevation of numerous “private parties”
    to positions of privileged Intel consumption.

    “Membership has its privileges”.

    The price of corporate membership may be sharing secrets.
    (If necessary, such arrangements may be retroactively blessed
    by Congress.)

    Other times, the price of an individual membership
    may involve discreetly leaking secrets —
    to “responsible journalists” like David Gregory,
    or to “patriotic corporations” like Halliburton.

    Hear that, Snowden? I said “Discreetly”!

    (Watching the “Revolving Doors” spin between the
    State “Intelligence Community” and its Non-State owners
    er, I mean, “contractors” and “customers”
    can make your head spin.)

  15. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    In response to Edding: This whole episode is old news. Time magazine reported several years ago that all of the electronic information (at the time phone conversation only) is being collected by a company in Israel under a contract.

  16. The estimable Signor Giraldi is once again on target–this is all old news. But one aspect might be interesting. Since only English-speaking allies are exempt from this supposed universal intelligence capability, what about the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church? Are even the confessionals bugged?

  17. Anonymous • Disclaimer says: • Website

    Escher said, “There are no permanent friends or allies, only the permanent interests of the military-industrial-Wall Street complex.”

    So true… and the heads of state, like Obama, like Bush (and in some ways, all of us) are just specks riding that soulless beast…

  18. cecelia says:

    I am clearly in a minority about this – but here goes. I was inclined to think the day I walked into the changing room in a department store and saw the sign saying I would be under video surveillance was the day privacy disappeared. In even medium sized cities there are CCTV cameras at every corner – that disturbed me as a serious intrusion and I foolishly thought independence loving Americans would knock the darn things off in no time – but they sit there still – recording every move made. Google tracks every search I do and site I visit so as to send me personally targeted advertisements. Even mildly famous celebrities are tracked everywhere they go by the ever present cell phone cameras and their pics posted promptly on instagram or twitter and then automatically sent to dozens of fan websites. Then there are the twitterings of every thought. And in this environment you seriously think you have privacy??

    We do not spy on the anglosphere because we have treaties with them – they promise not to spy on us and we promise not to spy on them. We attempted such an agreement with the French (who reputedly run the best intelligence gathering in North America) but there were differences of opinion about what spying actually means so the agreement was not made.

    While this has surely damaged our reputation even further with the average European – they make a religion of anti Americanism – it has also shown once again how hypocritical the Euros are.

    I say – the NSA needs to scale back its operations – stop wasting my tax dollars on collecting info you do not need. Create more civilian oversight for the FISA courts. And dear Lord please let’s stop with the terrorism paranoia before it consumes us.

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