US National Security Agency

US far from alone in spying on its allies, say former intelligence officials

The outrage and indignation over revelations about American surveillance around the world hides the truth, say former intelligence officials

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 October, 2013, 10:12pm
UPDATED : Friday, 25 October, 2013, 8:56am

European anger at reports that the US has conducted surveillance of allies' telephone calls and e-mails glosses over a basic truth, former intelligence officials say: everyone does it.

"All governments collect information on nearly all governments," said John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA. "The posture of most governments is, 'We want to collect as much info as we can, so we can be as fluent as we can when we make decisions.' It's just what governments do."

All governments collect information on nearly all governments
John McLaughlin, ex-CIA director

US President Barack Obama's administration has been dogged this week by disclosures detailing allegations of surveillance of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's private mobile phone, of former Mexican president Felipe Calderon's e-mails and of the collection of data on French citizens.

The leaks, all traced to documents stolen by fugitive security contractor Edward Snowden, led Obama to call Merkel on Wednesday to assure her the US "is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of the chancellor", White House press secretary Jay Carney said.

Complaints from Europe and Mexico about surveillance echo those from Brazil. Last month, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff cancelled a state visit to Washington after revelations that the National Security Agency had monitored her e-mail and telephone exchanges with top aides.

Government surveillance has a sinister resonance in Europe and news about US spying may have economic ramifications, said Fran Burwell, a vice-president at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group. It may complicate talks about a trans-atlantic trade pact and has exacerbated tensions between the US and the European Union over privacy, she said.

A European Parliament committee this week backed draft rules intended to toughen a 1995 privacy-protection law and impose penalties on domestic and foreign companies that violate it.

The proposal would require companies such as Google to let users fully erase their personal data and subject violators to fines of as much as €100 million (HK$1.06 billion) or 5 per cent of annual sales for violations, whichever is the greater.

"That legislation is now moving much more quickly than it probably would have without that continual flow of revelations," Burwell said.

For Europe and particularly Germany, the prospect of surveillance has dark echoes. The Nazis deployed spies and, after the second world war, the East German Stasi, or secret police, created massive networks that had friends, families and spouses watch and inform on each other.

"This has very bad resonance," Burwell said. "When Angela Merkel speaks about this, she grew up with the Stasi."

Der Spiegel magazine reported that US intelligence may have been monitoring Merkel's private mobile phone for years.

If allegations about surveillance of Merkel's phone are true, "it was probably to make sure we understand as well as we can where she stands on certain issues so we can have a more productive relationship", McLaughlin said. "It's not out of a sense of hostility or curiosity about people's private lives."

Another intelligence official said allies spied on each other all the time. He said France - which reacted angrily to this week's reports - was actually among the most active countries when it came to spying on allies and non-allies alike.