This is getting almost comical

The repeated revelations of how the US and UK governments have spied massively on everyone has had the desired effect of turning public opinion against this practice and now all those responsible are trying to evade blame. The revelations of spying on the leaders of friendly nations has been particularly embarrassing for the elites. So we have now entered the stage where everyone who had a hand in this (the White House, the NSA, Congress) is trying to blame everyone else for the fiasco. This is a good thing because it is when there are splits among the ruling elites that we get a glimpse of how things really work.

In a surprising twist, NSA director Keith Alexander is now blaming US diplomats for asking for information on foreign leaders, something that is sure to tick off the State Department. Meanwhile John Kerry, trying to placate annoyed world leaders whom he has to deal with, says that the NSA may have gone too far.

The Daily Show points out the hypocrisy of members of congress now expressing dismay at the spying revelations when it was those same congressional committees that bent over backwards to give the NSA sweeping powers to snoop on anyone and anything.

(This clip aired on October 30, 2013. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)

We also learned that there is something called the ‘five eyes club‘ consisting of English-speaking nations (US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) that have an agreement among themselves to not spy on each other and to aid each other in spying efforts. Australia is now in trouble with Asian countries for spying on them, possibly on behalf of the US.

Frankly I don’t believe that the US does not spy on the other four countries. Commonality of language is hardly likely to deter an NSA that is hell bent on scooping up every communication is sight. In fact, it would be easier to spy on people who speak the same language. Given what we now know, I would not be at all surprised to learn in the near future that the US was spying on the other four English-speaking countries too because it looks like one purpose of the spying was to give the US an economic advantage in political and economic negotiations with other nations. So why would they exclude one set of nations purely on the basis of speaking the same language?


  1. The Beautiful Void says

    If the NSA aren’t spying on Bibi, in light of the warmongering on both sides of the Iran/Israel fence, then they aren’t doing their jobs. Much as I deplore the way the NSA has stretched its remit to cover “everyone, everywhere”, I think that one’s legitimate.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    colnago80 – Please consider the case of Jonathan Pollard.

    Consider it in such intensity and depth that you have to give up making stupid comments.

  3. moarscienceplz says

    Just like in astronomy, this ‘new” information is about events that actually happened decades ago. I really wonder if US/UK relations are still so nice and cozy after the Kim Philby and Anthony Burgess fiascoes.

  4. brucegee1962 says

    The problem that I have with all of this hand-wringing about spying is that I don’t think of spying as in essence a hostile act. If you were president, making decisions every day that could affect millions of lives, wouldn’t you want information about how EVERYONE would react to those decisions — both friends and foes? I’m sure Obama is asking his Intel briefers all the time — “If we were to bomb Syria/ease up North Korean sanctions/fine BP for its oil spill, what kind of reaction would we get from France/Germany/Britain?” And you can’t say “Just ask them,” because international diplomacy doesn’t work that way, enough among besties.

    Many, many wars throughout history have been fought because of miscalculation — countries think they know how other countries are going to react, but it turns out they’re wrong. Would Iraq have invaded Kuwait, or Argentina invaded the Faulklands, if they had possessed first-rate intelligence as to how the rest of the world would react? I think not.

    I would maintain that good spying can actually be a force for peace. If every country possessed perfect intel, then they would only fight the wars they were sure they could win. How many wars would that prevent?

  5. khms says

    The problem that I have with all of this hand-wringing about spying is that I don’t think of spying as in essence a hostile act.

    It fundamentally is, though. There’s a reason there are all those ugly sentences for spies pretty much everywhere.

    If you were president, making decisions every day that could affect millions of lives, wouldn’t you want information about how EVERYONE would react to those decisions — both friends and foes?

    For that matter, wouldn’t you want to be able to just tell them how to react?

    Alas, wanting it isn’t the same as getting it, and getting it isn’t the same as it being OK.

    And you can’t say “Just ask them,” because international diplomacy doesn’t work that way, enough among besties.

    Actually, that’s the way it is supposed to work.

  6. lorn says

    I laugh every time, as in this case, someone speaks of ‘tapping a line’. Yes, we could still do it that way. But that isn’t how most of this is done.

    Using a cell phone requires the system to note that one particular phone wants to make a connection to another specific phone, it logs this along with the duration and other specifics of that connection. You need to do that to run the system and bill people for calls made. Every cell service provider collects this information. And once collected, as I understand it, this log or metadata is stored for posterity. It typically never gets erased.

    There are analogous systems recording every e-mail transaction, every web site, every banking transaction, all your credit card use, and, within the USPS, a fairly common practice of automatically recording addresses and return addresses on all of your mail. And all of those records are, by virtue of data storage being so cheap and not wanting to lose anything important, it is all stored forever.

    Notice that so far I haven’t mentioned anybody spying or any intelligence gathering by security agencies. All of this is a normal and expected part of the business of being a service provider.

    Now for the kicker, almost all of this information is for sale. They might randomize some bits and pieces and obscure (notice I don’t say delete) certain fields to maintain a nominal level of anonymity, but most of it for sale.

    Given this existing system the national intelligence agencies found it easy to suck it all in. Some of it they just buy wholesale. Other subsystems are simply copying the all records the providers keep in real time.

    Of course once you have that sort of automated connection it is a lot easier to go on to record the actual contents of the communications. Ironically snail mail is one of the hardest systems to read because the letters are inside an envelope and not digitized. Reading what is inside would require physical manipulation so it is seldom done. Assuming you don’t live in a prison.

    I wonder exactly at what level are we “spying on foreign leaders” . Are we listening in on conversations on their supposed secure lines? Are we listening to the unsecured lines? Or are we simply recording the metadata produced by all digital communications?

    I do agree that congress has no reason to show outrage. They wrote the laws and provided the money.

    It also remains, even if all the national security agencies got entirely out of the intelligence gathering business (as if ), to determine how people feel about their cell phone company, internet provider, and credit card company keeping records indefinitely, and selling this information.

    Many people seem to have taken a whistle-past-the-graveyard attitude. I have talked to people who deny that companies keep, and/or sell, the information.

    We need to develop some sort of consensus on what is, and what is not, allowed. And this needs to include firm and strongly enforced standards for private industry. It makes no sense to make believe that it is only national security agencies we need to worry about. I’ far more worried about multinational corporations holding data than government.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Some of AB’s later works should have stayed on the far side of the Atlantic. In an envelope in a box in a trunk in someone’s attic, someone prone to smoking in bed. Since some of them were inflicted on us, we can only hope that US cultural attachés stationed in the UK have been instructed to roll their eyes (since so few have mastered lip-curling to English standards) at any mention of, say, 1985.

    And Kim Philby wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far without so much help from James Jesus Angleton, all-time record-holder for World’s Worst Counterintelligence Honcho.

  8. says

    Apparently, his point is that Israel can be fooled into buying overpriced hangar queens.

    As Chuck Spinney said of the Osprey, “it’s not much of a helicopter, but with a glide ratio like that it’s not much of an airplane either.”

  9. colnago80 says

    And of course, the real reason you don’t like James Jesus Angleton is because he was Israel’s best friend in the CIA.

  10. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    Wow, speaking of things that are getting comical, you do know you’re the only one talking about israel here, right? You’re starting to seem just a smidge obsessed, y’know?

  11. Acolyte of Sagan says

    Mano Singham
    November 1, 2013 at 3:11 pm (UTC -4) Link to this comment

    I think you mean Guy Burgess. Anthony Burgess is the novelist.

    I believe that’s known in certain quarters as a slam-dunk.

  12. Acolyte of Sagan says

    Nations have spied on each other for ever, and every time they get caught there’s apologies all round, promises not to do it again, and a lot of pressure on boffins to make better spying equipment. Nothing’s ever changed and nothing ever will.
    Does that make me sound pessimistic or just realistic?

  13. Pierce R. Butler says

    Alas, dysomniak …, I beg to differ. colnago80 (previously aka slc & slc1) started to seem obsessed years ago – most researchers date it to the 20th century, but can’t agree on more precise chronology.

    As for Angleton, I feel more pity than dislike for him (though surely that would reverse if I’d ever had to deal with the guy). I don’t know if I’d even been aware of Zionist predilections on his part; my readings left me convinced he felt himself aligned with the Vatican first and foremost, more so than any boss spook before good ol’ Wm. Casey.

  14. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    It is possible that I was a bit too charitable in my assessment. It is also possible that I was deliberately exercising a certain amount of restraint, or rhetorical understatement.

    Frankly I wish I weren’t familiar with SLCnago’s history, or StervR’s.

  15. Nick Gotts says

    There are at least two problems with that (even assuming you’re just talking about political elites spying on each other):
    1) As we’ve seen, it sometimes becomes known that you were spying on your “allies”. You can never be sure it will not become known, because spying is done by spies – professional decievers. When it does become known, this has uncontrollable consequences.
    2) You grossly overestimate the rationality of decisions to go to war. To take just one particularly clear example, in 1941, Japan had more than adequate information to know that it was bound to lose a war with the USA; but there are many others where rational calculation based on what we know was known at the time would have prevented wars that nevertheless occurred.

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