Reading Gentlemen’s Mail
When the United States began reading coded diplomatic communications of its allies, President Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State, Henry Stimson, stopped the practice saying, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”
The concepts of accepted diplomatic behavior have changed in the last 100 years. Today, gentlemen do read each other’s mail. Gentlemen read their closest friend’s mail. Gentlemen team up with other gentlemen to read their friend’s mail. Gentlemen swap other’s mail with each other. Gentlemen set up false internet sites to make it easier to read other gentlemen’s emails. And gentlemen let other gentlemen read the mail of its citizens to circumvent laws.
In 2009, the British signals intelligence agency GCHQ set up fake internet cafes for delegates to the G20 meeting in 2009. The British logged their keystrokes, broke into their Blackberries, and recorded all the phone calls.
Not to be left behind, the Americans monitored the phone calls of Russian leader Dmitri Medvedev (and undoubtedly many others).
Even though all nations have their communication intelligence services that intercept and crack other nation’s secret communications, everyone acted surprised this week when it was learned that the American NSA had tapped Danish underwater internet cables (with the assistance of the Danes) from 2012 to 2014. The targets were the leadership of Germany, Sweden, Norway, and France.
This should not have been a surprise to anyone since Edward Snowden had revealed that the NSA had broken into German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Blackberry during the Obama Administration, although there is the question if Obama had any say so about the spying.
The European leaders who were spied upon were quick to condemn the act, even though these nations are also guilty of intercepting their allies’ communications.
“This is not acceptable between allies, and even less between allies and European partners,” said French President Macron. “I am attached to the bond of trust that unites Europeans and Americans,” Macron said, adding that “there is no room for suspicion between us.”
Merkel added, “We requested that our Danish and American partners provide all the information on these revelations and on these past facts. We are awaiting these answers.”
Merkel did not mention that Germany had spied on Turkey and had even intercepted phone calls made by Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.
Merkel should not expect any apologies from Obama or his former Vice President, Joe Biden. During his administration, the president, Barak Obama spied on his own Congress.
If everyone spies on each other, why the clamor? As French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner said, it was not those nations spying on their allies, it was that the United States was better at it.
“Let’s be honest, we eavesdrop too,” Kouchner confessed while being interviewed by French radio. “But we don’t have the same means as the United States, which makes us jealous.”
In many cases, the eavesdropping is to learn what an ally is saying to an enemy. Reports surfaced that Israel was spying on the Iran-US nuclear talks during the Obama Administration. One target was intercepting the communications of Secretary of State John Kerry.
Much of the intelligence was then passed on to US senators and congressmen. This upset the Obama Administration more than the original spying. Obama was trying to keep the negotiations secret, even though the US Constitution requires the Senate to confirm treaties made with foreign nations.
One unnamed Obama Administration official told the Wall Street Journal, “It is one thing for the US and Israel to spy on each other. It’s another thing for Israel to steal US secrets and play them back to US lawmakers to undermine US diplomacy.”
Of course, the reason the US learned that Israel was spying on the Iranian nuclear talks was that US intelligence agencies were intercepting Israeli communications amongst Israeli officials.
Do not be surprised if Israel is spying on the current Iranian nuclear talks. In fact, be surprised if they are not spying.
A lot of communications are intercepted and broken by the cooperative effort of two or more nations. The “Five Eyes” – the English-speaking nations of the US, Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand is a good example. However, it is England’s sophisticated communications intelligence agency, GCHQ, that is the most valuable for US intelligence.
According to a report by the Guardian, Edward Snowden provided documents showing that the US was paying GCHQ hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade its capabilities. The Guardian went on to call GCHQ more aggressive than the American NSA. It is also called GCHQ, an intelligence superpower.
One reason the Americans like to team up with the British GCHQ is that Britain doesn’t have a constitution and a Bill of Rights that protects its citizens or citizens of other nations from unlawful spying.
Although it is illegal for the NSA to monitor the communications of Americans, unless they have a warrant, it is perfectly okay for the British to monitor American communications and pass information on to the Americans (although this is a very grey area of the law and likely a violation of the US Constitution and its Bill of rights). In fact, one Snowden document was a pitch from GCHQ to the NSA and other US spy agencies noting that the legal and regulatory environment in Britain made electronic spying easier.
It is not illegal for the UK to spy on Americans, although it should be discouraged by the US government.
Another nation that spies on the US, while cooperating with them is Israel. American intelligence names Israel as the third most aggressive espionage threat to the US (China and Russia have the top positions). A 2013 American intelligence document called Israel a “hostile” foreign intelligence service.
A former NSA Global Capabilities Manager for Countering Foreign Intelligence praised the US relationship with Israel, but said, “one of NSA’s biggest threats is actually from friendly intelligence services like Israel.”
Israel is an equal opportunity spy. The French newspaper La Monde claimed that NSA documents indicate that a massive computer hack in the French presidential palace in 2012 was carried out by Israel.
The NSA says that Israel targets the US government for invasive electronic surveillance, including fake cell phone electronics, called “stingrays,” installed in sensitive locations in Washington to catch American bureaucrats using their cell phones for confidential conversations. These stingrays mimic regular cell towers, capture the contents of the calls and data, and even give the location of the cell phone.
However, since 9/11, the US has tempered its condemnation of Israel for practical reasons. It has relied on Israel’s intelligence contacts in the Middle East and justifying it by claiming to fight terrorism and seeking to stop the development of an Iranian nuclear bomb.
Israel is spying on the US right now. They want to know what is being discussed between the Iranians and Americans in the nuclear talks. They want to know what the response is to a more aggressive Israeli approach to sabotage inside Iran. They want to know how much money will be given to them by Congress (especially the additional $1 billion needed to replenish the Iron Dome interceptors used in the past few weeks). They want to know what the Biden Administration is saying to Hamas now. And they want to know how American lawmakers are responding to the recent fighting in Gaza.
Israel also understands the US spies on Israel. A former American intelligence official admitted Israel was spying on the US government. However, he noted, “on the other hand, guess what we do in Tel Aviv?”
Former State Department coordinator of counter terrorism under Obama Daniel Benjamin once told Politico that a former Mossad official told him that Israel did not spy on the US. “I just told him our conversation was over if he had such a low estimate of my intelligence.”
The famous quote by Stimson nearly 100 years ago about gentlemen not reading each other’s mail has gone to the board. In today’s intelligence game, not only do gentlemen read everyone’s mail, but it is also expected of them.