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Aug 25 2013

More Snowden-based leaks today

Today the German news magazine Der Spiegel has released more information based on NSA revelation by Edward Snowden that the US has been systematically spying on UN governments and delegations.

Der Spiegel said the European Union and the U.N.’s Vienna-based nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), were among those targeted by U.S. intelligence agents.

In the summer of 2012, NSA experts succeeded in getting into the U.N. video conferencing system and cracking its coding system, according one of the documents cited by Der Spiegel.

“The data traffic gives us internal video teleconferences of the United Nations (yay!),” Der Spiegel quoted one document as saying, adding that within three weeks the number of decoded communications rose to 458 from 12.

According to the documents, the NSA runs a bugging program in more than 80 embassies and consulates worldwide called “Special Collection Service”. “The surveillance is intensive and well organized and has little or nothing to do with warding off terrorists,” wrote Der Spiegel. [My italics-MS]

The ‘war on terrorism’ is being increasingly seen as a cover for the government to violate the norms of behavior. It will be interesting to see how those governments that are allies and clients of the US explain to their own people that the US treats them the same way as it does its perceived enemies.

19 comments

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  1. 1
    Jeffrey Johnson

    It clearly seems outrageous on the surface that the US could be so impolite.

    It seems kind of lacking in imagination to even discuss terrorism in this context. US espionage never needed terrorism as a justification. It was about having the best possible information so as to avoid making mistakes when it comes to monumental decisions in foreign policy strategy and tactics.

    Considering the issues we are struggling with on Iran’s nuclear program, and how much is riding on making the right choices, it is understandable why having full disclosure about the monitoring processes and discussions surrounding IAEA proceedings would be invaluable to us. What if information we gained that way helped to prevent a war with Iran? We would be negligent if we didn’t make decisions based on as much information as we can gather, even if others are unwilling to share that information.

    In a wonderful open honest peaceful world, nobody would need to have any secrets. Nobody would lie. We could just take all public statements at face value as being true. Or better yet, every international body, embassy, government, or other institution of strategic importance would simply have open networks that anybody could navigate and read all documents legally as open public resources.

    But we don’t live in that world. And since we don’t want to make a major stupid error with respect to estimating Iran’s progress or Iran’s intentions, its probably better that we do everything possible to get any and all information we can. This is nothing new. This goes back to the Revolutionary War for this country, and has been a feature of human civilization for all recorded history.

    I suppose we could be more honorable, but then, which other countries are being so honorable that they won’t grab any information that it is within their capacity to get ahold of? I’m not sure there is one. If other governments are upset about this, it could be that they are just jealous that they don’t have the technology to do the same, because they would not hesitate to do so if they could. Israel spies on the US. The UK spies on the US, and China spies on the US, and probably most other developed nations do whatever spying it is within their means to get away with. That’s how international diplomacy works. It can be modeled with game theory. Everybody thinks they are entitled to get any advantage in intelligence because they all think of themselves as the good guys.

    Personally I would love it if everyone was open about all of their deliberations and communications, so no spying would be needed. But that dream is probably not going to happen any time soon, if ever.

  2. 2
    Compuholic

    Considering the issues we are struggling with on Iran’s nuclear program, and how much is riding on making the right choices, it is understandable why having full disclosure about the monitoring processes and discussions surrounding IAEA proceedings would be invaluable to us.

    I’m sorry but that is an incredibly short sighted view. Imagine you are a county that has agreed to have their nuclear installations being monitored by the IAEA. If you knew that every piece of information obtained by the IAEA will end up in spy agencies around the world: Would you continue to trust the organization? And if I remember correctly this is exactly one of the arguments Iran used to deny the IAEA access to their facilities. And the sabotage of their facilities via Stuxnet most likely didn’t help to establish good relations.

    Trust is a valuable commodity in business, politics and everyday life. Once lost it is hard to be restored. And currently I have a hard time believing anything the U.S. government has to say on pretty much any issue. And in fact I hope that our politicians will grow a spine and do something to show that that this behavior is not ok.

    Personally I would kick all U.S. military personel out of the country or at least cancel the trade agreement until these activities stop. With “friends” like that you don’t need any enemies anymore.

  3. 3
    Jockaira

    I understand what you’re saying and wonder why the US feels a need to “spy” on the IAEA, a department of the UN. Supposedly the data accumulated by the IAEA and its deliberations are available to member nations (or should be for the reasons you’ve given). The state of any nation’s nuclear weapons development MUST be a legitimate concern to ALL other nations.

    Is the UN so rigidly compartmentalized that this information is impossible to share among its members, especially those on the Security Council which would ultimately make decisions on actions required as a result of rogue nuclear programs? Is the UN organised in such manner that the responsibilities are guarded closely as a medieval baron would protect the boundaries of his fief?

    If the US (and others I’m sure) feel the necessity to spy on the IAEA, then it must be time to make the IAEA a truly public organisation with all its matters available for public inspection.

    Then again maybe the CIA, NSA, NRO, etal just feel that they must put their fingers into everyone else’s pie.

  4. 4
    wtfwhatever

    An interesting thought experiment:

    List your 5 biggest issues you would like a future president to tackle.

    For each issue, if you could be given a guarantee that that president would address the issue largely in the way you want, could you accept that president being in “the opposing party”? And what issues would you give on, if you knew that President would tackle your big issue in the way you want?

    For instance Ron Paul has garnered praise from Bernie Sanders, Ron Wyden, Dennis Kucinich, Jonathan Turley.

    Could you live with 4 – 8 years of a libertarian President rolling back, at least for his tenure, various social and military programs in exchange for his tearing down the NSA?

    Who among our likely Presidential candidates can we put the most trust in to work on behalf of our civil liberties and our privacy rights?

  5. 5
    Jeffrey Johnson

    This is a good point. I wonder what it was that the IAEA would keep secret from the US. And if all the IAEA information is available to members, maybe this report is in some way confused or inaccurate.

    Maybe they were a red team testing the IAEA networks for vulnerabilities, and informing them on how to beef up their security.

    I don’t know any more detail than is in Mano’s post. I was just trying to point out why conceptually this isn’t automatically something to be enraged about.

  6. 6
    unbound

    @Jeffrey Johnson

    What if information we gained that way helped to prevent a war with Iran?

    How would that information be ever used to “prevent” a war? At best, the information gathered for such reasons would allow for a preemptive strike. Most likely, a portion of the information would used to mislead the public into a war (oh, maybe another four-letter country that starts with “I”).

    If you seriously want to prevent a war, start with what Compuholic said above. Wars do not start at random. We’ve been screwing with Iran since at least the 50s when we installed the shah (look up 1953 Iranian coup d’etat if you aren’t familiar). At long as we continue to posture ourselves taking them out, there isn’t one thing spying is going to do to stop a war.

    I agree that an intelligence agency is absolutely necessary, but as Compuholic said above, you need to trust your allies at least a little bit and not be spying on them all the time. And spying on your own citizens is an exercise in paranoia of a power few, not serving your country and its citizens.

  7. 7
    Jeffrey Johnson

    What you are saying makes sense to me. It sounds desirable. I’m just wondering whether it isn’t a vision of how we would all like the world to be, as opposed to how the world actually is.

    I really don’t believe if the US unilaterally started to behave in some absolutely fair and respectful way regarding the zeal to acquire intelligence, if other countries would follow suit. Do you believe Iran doesn’t spy based on moral principle? If that were true I’d be amazed. I really don’t have any way of knowing, but I think our intelligence community knows a lot about it.

    If our actions were, as you suggest, alienating Iran because we spied on the IAEA, then it would be up to our analysts to report that our efforts have backfired, that they are counterproductive, and that as an alternative all we have to do is play nice and Iran would completely abandon any ambitions to develop nuclear weapons. I doubt this is a plausible scenario. I think we hire really smart people as intelligence and policy analysts, and that an opportunity like that could simply be overlooked seems unlikely.

    It’s sad that we can’t all leave our front doors unlocked and leave the keys in the car. But we can’t do that and have peace of mind that someone won’t steal our belongings or our car. The relations between nations are kind of like that too. We can’t just lower our guard and expect everyone else to do the same. So it plays out in a more hostile adversarial manner, even between allies to some extent. It is a sad fact of life, and everyone would like to change it if they could find a way.

    Right now it is probably our open and public actions, the economic sanctions, that are bothering Iran much more than any IAEA stolen video feeds. I hope that progress will be made in negotiations with a new Iranian President in place. We’ll see.

  8. 8
    Jeffrey Johnson

    I think it might prevent a war if we had information that could soothe our own paranoid war hawks from pushing us into one, as they did in Iraq. If we had good intelligence that proved Iran was not a nuclear threat, better than, for example, Iran telling us they are not a threat, it would go a long way to stopping the drumbeats for war within the US and Israel. Good intelligence is hard to come by, which is why so much effort is spent trying to get it.

  9. 9
    Jeffrey Johnson

    I think Ron Paul has only been praised by those liberals on his foreign policy positions. A smaller defense department, less aggression overseas, and fewer foreign bases are popular with liberals and libertarians.

    I don’t think any liberals would trade dismantling the NSA for dismantling Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

    I would never want a libertarian, or to live in a libertarian world. Corporations would dominate and rule even more so than they do today under a libertarian small government approach. I think poverty and crime would skyrocket.

    I’d probably prefer Mitt Romney to a libertarian, as much as I don’t like Romney.

  10. 10
    Compuholic

    I’m just wondering whether it isn’t a vision of how we would all like the world to be, as opposed to how the world actually is.

    I am fairly certain the world is much safer as our governments want us to believe. Terrorism is a very small threat. And no matter what the government does there will always be a few lunatics on this planet. This is simply something we have to accept but this category is probably mostly covered by religious terrorism.

    What I think is that nowadays the U.S. is creating their own enemies. I think that especially the drone strikes create lots of hatred towards the U.S.

    And as for Iran developing nuclear bombs. I am not very concerned. First of all: It is their legal right to do so. They signed the non-proliferation treaty which says that the IAEA monitors their programs and in exchange allows them to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. So I can understand that they feel cheated and don’t trust the U.S. (or the IAEA for that matter) anymore.

    Secondly the latest news I have heard is that their enrichment facility is only designed to enrich to a level of 20% which is not enough for nuclear bombs but sounds about right for a nuclear reactor.

    And finally: Even if they developed nuclear weapons: I don’t think they are stupid enough to actually use a nuclear weapon. They now that this would be the end for them. They would be outcasts in the international community and not to mention the target of retaliation.

    Do you believe Iran doesn’t spy based on moral principle?

    Iran is certainly not a poster child when it comes to international relations. But certainly they don’t come even close to the scale the U.S. is spying. I highly doubt that Iran is actually bugging foreign embassies or international organizations.

    I think we hire really smart people as intelligence and policy analysts

    The problem I see is not that they are not qualified. The problem is that those people have a political agenda. If you already have formed an opinion you will always find evidence to confirm your bias. This is what happened with the WMDs. And sorry, I don’t buy it that none of the analysts foresaw that sabotage would not have negative consequences.

    It’s sad that we can’t all leave our front doors unlocked and leave the keys in the car. But we can’t do that and have peace of mind that someone won’t steal our belongings or our car.

    A very poor analogy. By locking your car you are protecting something that is actually yours. Intelligence agencies actively steal information. For this analogy to work you would break into the garages of other people and install a camera in order to see if somebody stole your car.

    I hope that progress will be made in negotiations with a new Iranian President in place.

    And why would he want to negotiate with somebody that took away a right he obtained by signing the proliferation treaty. The only reason why he would do that is that he was in a position that forced him to comply.

    And that is precisely the problem. The U.S. act like the bullies of the world. An agreement with the U.S. is not worth the paper it is printed on because the government will ignore it whenever it is convenient.

  11. 11
    Compuholic

    Err … of course I didn’t mean that Iran has right to develop nuclear weapons. I meant that they have a legal right to enrich uranium.

  12. 12
    Dunc

    I think you misunderstand the nature of “intelligence”… It is never gathered impartially to shape policy in a rational manner. It is gathered to support policies which have already been decided on, and when suitable “intelligence” doesn’t exist, it is manufactured. This is always how it works. Iraq is a perfect example – we had ample intelligence on the actual situation in the country, which indicated very clearly that they had no WMDs and no involvement with Al Qaeda. Since the real, solid, reliable intelligence did not support the desired policy, an entirely separate office was set up specifically to manufacture bogus “intelligence” which did support the policy, whilst the genuine intelligence was ignored.

  13. 13
    Who Cares

    Secondly the latest news I have heard is that their enrichment facility is only designed to enrich to a level of 20% which is not enough for nuclear bombs but sounds about right for a nuclear reactor.

    Iran has a medical isotope reactor that uses 19.75% enriched uranium, at full power it uses roughly 20kg/year.
    They are deliberately turning uraniumhexafluoride (UF6) into fuel rods, considered an irreversible process, for this reactor (and possible Bushehr although a VVER type reactor uses 2% to 4.5%) to prevent the west from having a reason to attack.
    The biggest problem, so to speak, is that Iran produces 20% enriched faster then it can burn. And the excess is turned into yellowcake (U3O8), ostensibly for storage purposes but it does freak out people since it is easy to convert back into UF6

  14. 14
    Paul Jarc

    To add to Dunc’s point, nuclear technology is not the reason the US would attack Iran. It is the excuse. The reason is oil. If the government learns more about Iran’s nuclear capabilities, it won’t help to prevent a war. Having the citizens learn more could help, but the government isn’t in the business of informing the citizens honestly, so government intelligence efforts are irrelevant.

  15. 15
    Jeffrey Johnson

    The reason is oil.

    This sounds convincing according to the “every move must be based on the most self-interested cynical possible explanation” theory of foreign policy.

    But you can’t possibly know this with the confidence that you state it, as if it were fact. It’s merely an opinion.

    And I don’t think it’s a good theory, because you’d have to be able to construct a scenario in which the cost of the invasion was actually offset substantially by some economic oil related benefits to the US. A lot of people said Iraq was about oil too. However Iraq autonomously controls its own oil and contracts today, and a lot of Iraqi oil is going to China. So if the reason to invade Iraq was oil, it was a total loser in terms of actual economic benefit to the US.

    So to back up your assertion, exactly what is the process by which the US realizes oil related benefits from an invation of Iran? Are you speculating would out and out take possession of their oil? Or do you project some other method?

  16. 16
    Jeffrey Johnson

    [intelligence] is never gathered impartially to shape policy in a rational manner.

    Never? I realize that in the case of Iraq, we had some intelligence, and then there was political manipulation of that intelligence coming from the White House.

    But I think you are dead wrong to assert that our entire intelligence apparatus has a political agenda and only looks for bits of information to confirm that.

    The intelligence community tries to figure out what is true. That’s their job and their careers, and often their livese, depend on doing that well. There are a lot of good people there, and what you know about this is probably because it was leaked by concerned CIA officers.

    There is such a thing as counter-intelligence and psy-ops that involve manufacturing disinformation and propaganda, but that is distinct from the actual serious intelligence products delivered to top decision makers.

    But the kind of manipulation you are talking about would be a choice made on how to make use of analysis and reports coming out of the CIA and other agencies. What you are talking about happened in the White House and in the Pentagon, not in the CIA.

    I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to imply that the Iraq manipulations are standard operating procedure for our entire intelligence community, unless you can provide some strong evidence for that assertion.

  17. 17
    Dunc

    On the contrary, given the very length history of politically-convenient intelligence “failures”, I think it’s you who should be providing some evidence for your assertions. Does the term “missile gap” mean anything to you? How about “domino effect”? “Bay of Pigs”? I could go on… You, on the other hand, have provided absolutely no evidence, nor any examples.

  18. 18
    Marcus Ranum

    I didn’t mean that Iran has right to develop nuclear weapons

    Iran could withdraw from the nonproliferation treaty. Except that nobody in their right mind would. Why’s that? Because the nonproliferation treaty says “if you’re a signatory, we will promise not to use nuclear weapons on you.” Hell of a treaty, huh? It’s like the local mob thug coming along and inviting you to join their ‘health and safety program”!!

    All the NPT says is “we, the nuclear club, have closed our membership list and you are not and will not be on it. in return, we will threaten you with conventional weapons backed by terror weapons of appalling power. we promise to lord it over you and in return we promise never to stop.”

    Any rational state would want a nuclear deterrent but they are insanely expensive and the NPT club closely monitor nuclear potential technologies, and punish and threaten any state that even thinks about obtaining them.

    It’s a disgusting naked use of power, thinly disguised as desirable for everyone.

  19. 19
    Jeffrey Johnson

    @Dunc:
    Here is your original assertion:

    I think you misunderstand the nature of “intelligence”… It is never gathered impartially to shape policy in a rational manner. It is gathered to support policies which have already been decided on, and when suitable “intelligence” doesn’t exist, it is manufactured. This is always how it works.

    I’m sorry, but mentioning Iraq and the Bay of Pigs is not “evidence” that our intelligence community “always” manufactures intelligence to support policies that have “already been decided on”, and that it is “never gathered impartially”.

    I’m not saying the CIA is perfect and has never made mistakes. I’m saying that what you are talking about is what the White House and the Pentagon tells the public. If “intelligence” is used to sway public opinion, that may well have been manufactured for that purpose.

    But internally, the whole system does not operate in such a delusional manner. I would venture to say that pretty much anything you or I can think of, in terms of possible scenarios or outcomes for international events, the CIA has people smart enough to think of that and much more. It’s really kind of funny that people make sweeping statements indicating they are so much smarter than the CIA.

    I would recommend reading Tim Weiner’s “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA”. You will find they’ve done lot’s of nasty and manipulative stuff, but what you won’t find is that they are stupid and delusional about what the reality of the world is.

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