What's a little snooping among friends?

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 18, 2013

REVELATIONS by London's Guardian daily that foreign leaders and officials who visited Britain had their communications intercepted by its intelligence agencies could not have come at a worse time for British Prime Minister David Cameron, just as he is hosting a summit of the G-8 top industrialised nations.

There is visible irritation in London that a gathering attended by, among others, the United States and Russian presidents may end up being overshadowed by a tangential spying scandal.

Yet the only people who were neither shaken nor stirred by the revelations were the heads of states and governments who are in Britain at the moment. They have always known that every move outside their home countries is recorded.

The Guardian obtained the four-page intelligence document marked "Top Secret Strap 1" - one of Britain's highest security classifications - from Mr Edward Snowden, the US National Security Agency's former employee responsible for a string of disclosures about American intelligence operations.

The material appears to indicate that during the course of two international summits in Britain, in April and September 2009, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) deployed what the spooks bashfully called "ground-breaking intelligence capabilities" to monitor the communications of visiting delegations.

Methods used included penetrating the security of delegates' BlackBerrys, hacking into the computer servers of foreign ministries and setting up Internet cafes able to "extract key logging info" from summit delegates, thereby providing the British with "sustained intelligence options" long after their foreign guests had departed.

Predictably, the left-leaning Guardian claims to be aghast at revelations that Britain's agents are "bugging and snooping" even on friends. But intelligence experts are not in the least bit surprised, since spying on leaders has been an almost routine affair for at least two centuries.

It started with the Congress of Vienna, convened to rearrange Europe after the defeat of France's Napoleon in 1815. Prince Metternich, the Austrian host, set up a vast team of spies to report on the activities of all his foreign colleagues, to steam-open their sealed diplomatic reports and document every indiscretion.

And the practice has continued ever since.

Sometimes the results were tragic, such as the British attempt to plant listening devices on the underwater hull of the ship which carried the Soviet leadership on a visit to Britain in 1956: The frogman sent for this purpose was subsequently found floating, minus his head.

Sometimes, the outcome was bizarre: British and US intelligence services regularly collected bed sheets and diverted the plumbing from hotel rooms in which Soviet leaders were staying, apparently because analysis of excrement and dead skin cells left embedded in bed linen yielded important clues about the Soviet politicians' health, an important matter during the Cold War.

Journalists themselves were involved in such spying: London's Times newspaper correspondent Henri Blowitz hid under a negotiating table when the Treaty of Berlin was negotiated in 1878, passing crucial details to Britain.

Most countries go to elaborate lengths to protect their leaders when they hit the road, certain that they would be spied on. Meaningful discussions take place only when a visiting leader is safely inside the secure area of his or her embassy, not in hotel rooms.

Communication with the home capital is usually kept to the bare minimum. The US ships a special limousine to any foreign country its president visits, ensuring that he has access to secure communications.

Still, spying on leaders is growing more intensive, largely because summits are more frequent and more important: Almost anything Europe does now is handled in interminable gatherings among its leaders.

Furthermore, in an age when economic power accounts for more than tanks or military jets, knowing in advance the negotiating stance of one's opponents can literally decide a nation's destiny: At the crucial stage of the euro crisis, Greek prime ministers would have surely been prepared to bet their entire military in return for precise knowledge on whether Germany intends to save them from bankruptcy.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 18, 2013

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