How much did foreign government leaders know about NSA spying?

As the Edward Snowden revelations keep coming out about how the NSA and GCHQ and the rest of the ‘Five Eyes’ club have been pretty much spying on everyone including the leaders of foreign governments, there have been loud protestations about these practices by foreign leaders that this was being done without their knowledge and consent. As Glenn Greenwald poses the question: “Were these top officials truly unaware, or were they pretending to be, in order to distance themselves from surveillance operations that became highly controversial once disclosed?”

Cynics amongst us were skeptical at these protestations of innocence. But it turns out that the claims of at least some foreign leaders may be credible, and that what we have is a shadowy alliance of intelligence agencies that deliberately try to work independently of a nation’s leaders and keep their activities largely secret from them because this makes them less susceptible to the vagaries of election results. Another internal NSA document released by the NSA says:

For a variety of reasons, our intelligence relationships are rarely disrupted by foreign political perturbations, international or domestic. First, we are helping our partners address critical intelligence shortfalls, just as they are assisting us. Second, in many of our foreign partners’ capitals, few senior officials outside of their defense-intelligence apparatuses are witting to any SIGINT connection to the U.S./NSA

Greenwald concludes:

The revelations of a global system of blanket surveillance have come as a great surprise to hundreds of millions of citizens around the world whose governments were operating these systems without their knowledge. But they also came as a surprise to many high-ranking political officials in countries around the world who were previously ignorant of those programs, a fact which the NSA seems to view as quite valuable in ensuring that its surveillance activities remain immune from election outcomes and democratic debate.

This kind of lower-level alliance is not unheard of. It is well-known that the US military and intelligence agencies cultivate very close ties with the military of foreign countries, supplying them with military hardware, offering ‘training’ programs to their officers, providing them with ‘scholarships’, funding their ‘speaking engagements’ abroad, and even providing them with direct cash payments, all with the aim of obtaining their allegiance. This is why when a country elects a government that is seen as unfriendly to the US, the US sets in motion mechanisms to create unrest and destabilize those countries as a precursor to a military coup to ‘restore law and order’, with the coup leaders in those countries almost invariably being pro-US.

There are so many examples of this script being followed but the most telling one was in Chile where General Augusto Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende in 1973. Recent events in Venezuela also show the first stage of the plan in action, a repeat of an earlier one that led to a short-lived coup in 2002 against former president Hugo Chavez that the wily leader managed to foil. John Pilger’s article about how US and Australian intelligence agencies orchestrated the ouster of Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam in 1975 shows how the system works, and reminded me very much of the excellent 1988 British miniseries A Very British Coup that I can strongly recommend that is available on Netflix.

So it is not out of the realm of possibility that the foreign leaders’ claims of ignorance are true. But it may also be true that some of the people at the top understand what is going on just as well as I do and don’t want to know and don’t try very hard to find out so that they can plead ignorance at the appropriate time. They realize that as long as they follow a generally pro-US line, they are secure. This is the ‘iron hand in the velvet glove’ approach of obtaining US hegemony.

The fact that rogue intelligence agencies are avoiding the radar of the elected leadership of a nation raises even greater concerns than lying politicians.


  1. says

    It’s probably one of those deals where they told the Germans they were listening in on the British, and the British that they were listening on the Australians, and the Australians that they were listening to the Germans. And everyone had a really good laugh about. Until now.

  2. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    Ignorance of political leaders is a possible excuse in non-developed countries, but not in industrialised countries where any corporate security chief knows how snooping works. I’m counting even political parties as “corporations”.

    It is even less likely in countries that have their own telecommunications industry, like Germany. Any telecom equipment vendor knows about the Lawful Interception regulations that open a door for spooks.(*) Siemens has been one of the biggets on a global scale. They even operate networks as subcontractors to telecom companies. Some of that knowledge must reach as least the advisers of top political leaders.

    The only surpirising thing is how much money and effort the Five Eyes have been willing to spend to collect data that is mostly useless.

    (*) The requirements are public in laws and standards, and their implementations in patents. One of the sins of my former life is US7302702.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *