The real target of European outrage

The way the US goes about intelligence-gathering may change as a result of the recent spying scandal. But it is highly unlikely other countries will be admitted into the Five Eyes arrangement that unites the intelligence services of the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The biggest challenge facing the United States government in handling the ongoing scandal about its intrusive global spying operations is uncertainty about how many more embarrassing revelations will surface. In the immortal words of former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Washington is battling with "unknown unknowns".

So, the natural reaction of the US intelligence community is to batten down the hatches, admit to no wrongdoing, and hope that the storm will simply pass. But that would be a huge mistake. For the row is guaranteed to force changes in the way US spy bosses pick their targets. And, more significantly, the scandal also provides ammunition for those challenging America's key global intelligence-sharing structure: the so-called Five Eyes arrangement.

Obama's no voyeur

PRESIDENT Barack Obama's claim that he knew nothing about his spooks' decision to intercept the private telephone conversations of friendly foreign leaders may sound self-serving, but is almost certainly true. For, as anyone who has seen the system in action knows, intelligence briefs given to top politicians seldom mention how the information was acquired.

To be sure, specific phrases are frequently used to distinguish between, say, gossip from the diplomatic cocktail circuit and top quality stuff: Expressions such as "we have it from very reliable sources" or "intercepts indicate" denote accuracy. But it's highly unlikely that Mr Obama would have been presented with a report specifying that "German Chancellor Angela Merkel telephoned French President Francois Hollande at 6:14 last night"; The idea that Mr Obama is a voyeur who curls up in bed reading transcripts of other people's private phone calls is nonsense.

Selecting targets

TRADITIONALLY, decisions on who should be targeted were left to the intelligence agencies, which usually applied a cost-benefit calculation. This would include an assessment of the value of the expected information, the resources required and the risks of exposure.

Yet it's hard to escape the conclusion that the decision to hack into the private phones of America's closest allies should have failed this cost-benefit analysis. It could never be justified as part of the fight against terrorism, unless one suspects people like Chancellor Merkel of being a secret Al-Qaeda member. But, once exposed, the damage to America's reputation and relations was guaranteed to outweigh any intelligence advantage.

So, why were such operations authorised? Largely because the huge technological leads which the US enjoys lure its spying chiefs into believing that their intercepts are risk-free. In older days, when an operation involved setting up infrastructure on hostile territory and using human agents, costs and risks were always factored in. But intercepts are difficult to detect and easy to deny. The victims also usually have no interest in publicising their vulnerability. So current intelligence operations are getting more brazen on friends and foes alike; spying chiefs decide to do things now just because they can.

And operations are also getting far cheaper. It costs next to nothing to collect and store billions of bits of information per hour, so the security services end up scooping all they can collect. The biggest criticism levelled against the former Soviet Union's KGB during the Cold War was that its spies sucked up everything and ended up drowning in information. But that's what may be happening to US spy agencies today.

Either way, the current scandal has already shown that the decisions on what operations should be mounted and what material should be collected are now too important to be left to the spooks themselves. Restrictions will be placed on the agencies, and more political control is inevitable. The services have only themselves to blame for this.

But it is equally true that Europe's outrage at the discovery that the US spied on its allies is artificial, since many Europeans do exactly the same thing, albeit less efficiently. As Professor Daniel Drezner from the Fletcher School of Law in the US aptly remarked in an article for Foreign Policy magazine: "Europeans engage in exactly the same hypocrisy, just with fewer intelligence capabilities."

But there is also a practical purpose to this European outrage. Countries such as Germany and France are determined to use the current scandal to level the intelligence playing field.

Five Eyes arrangement

AND their target is to hit at the inner sanctum of the global spying world, a body whose very existence was acknowledged only a few years ago. This is the so-called Five Eyes arrangement which unites the intelligence services of the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The arrangement began with a secret seven-page agreement signed immediately after the end of World War II between the US and Britain, and expanded by the 1950s to the three other nations. Five Eyes members not only share most of the intelligence material and its interpretation, but also divide the world between them: British listening installations in Cyprus specialise in acquiring Middle East material, while Australians operate facilities which intercept signals deep inside China.

Many other nations have occasionally plugged into Five Eyes arrangements. But only the magical five remain joined at the hip on such matters, and particularly on signal intercepts. And just as importantly, only the five are pledged never to spy on one another. Apparently, that bond has never been broken.

Exclusive club

IT'S obvious why countries such as France or Germany resent their permanent relegation to the second tier of US allies. Not only do they get less information, but they also earn the dubious honour of being spied upon. It may be tempting to suggest that one way out of the current scandal would be to offer some key Western countries membership in the Five Eyes arrangement. But that won't be easy.

To start with, the more members that are included, the less exclusive the club is, and exclusivity remains a precious commodity for spies. But, more importantly, Five Eyes is not just an elite association of white, English-speaking nations; it is also a community of nations whose politicians think and act in more or less the same way, at least in the security arena.

The chief reason the Americans are not interested in spying on, say, a British or Australian prime minister is not that half a century ago they signed a piece of paper pledging not to do so, but rather that Washington can get all the information it needs from its partners through official channels. This is because every Five Eyes partner respects this trust, and none has challenged and all have often shared America's security priorities.

Would France or Germany be prepared to adopt a similar posture? For a country like France, which only a few years ago rejected a private American plea for a "non-aggression pact" in electronic spying activities between the two countries, the answer is clearly in the negative. Trust has to come before any membership in the Five Eyes arrangement, and it takes decades to earn it.

The chances are therefore high that the Five Eyes arrangement will stay untouched, although it will be increasingly resented by other nations, and defending it will become more and more difficult.

Meanwhile, the Americans will have to be extra careful in the way they spy on their allies.

But certain things won't change. For as George Smiley, the fictional British spymaster, put it in John Le Carre's novel The Secret Pilgrim, "all history teaches us that today's allies are tomorrow's rivals".

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com

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