The Vanishing Myth of American Intelligence

27.10.13 Publication:

“Don’t get caught.” That was the answer given to me by a former senior British intelligence official when I asked him about what principles should govern spy agencies’ activities listening to their allies. Yet that doesn’t mean that the argument about America’s National Security Agency (NSA) listening to Angela Merkel’s phone calls is not important. But it means that it is important for a different reason from the naïve notion that allies spying on each other is “unacceptable”, as Chancellor Merkel has felt obliged to call it.

The reason why the revelations about the NSA, which keep coming from their former employee, Edward Snowden, who has taken political asylum in Russia, are important concerns competence. The first shocking thing to other spy agencies, such as Britain’s MI6, is that the NSA got caught. But the second shocking thing is how incompetent they were at keeping not just this secret but the whole story of their vast surveillance activities.

You might argue that this is because the Americans are arrogant. They think they can do things just because it is technically possible to do them, and they think no one will be able to stop them. That is why Chancellor Merkel previously said that “one shouldn’t do things just because you can”. But alongside that truth of American arrogance, which has been a fact of western life ever since the Second World War, has stood also a belief that the Americans could be trusted to act more or less competently.

The Snowden affair has destroyed that belief. Mr Snowden was a junior computer contractor. He wasn’t some master-spy, nor even a computer genius. If he knew about the NSA’s surveillance programme, and had access to information about how they were tapping the phone conversations of world leaders, then so did thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of other staff.

This goes against the essence of intelligence operations: the tight protection of information within small groups of people on a “need to know” basis. That is even why the West’s enemies in Al-Qaeda, like Lenin’s Bolsheviks before them, use “cell” structures in which each small group does not and cannot know what others are doing.

Such tight protection of information has admittedly become harder in the digital age. Every sophisticated computer system – and the NSA’s is presumably one of the most sophisticated in the world – needs administrators to run it, who will control passwords and access and encryption, and who will therefore be able to know a huge amount of things, if they are interested enough to look. Yet it is still possible to create barriers, to put limits on what each administrator can know about. The NSA simply does not seem to have bothered.

This is likely to be the most damaging feature of this whole affair. Certainly, as a result of the latest revelations, Germany and other European countries will demand new, more equal rights in their intelligence-sharing agreements with the United States. They have leverage now and are bound to want to use it. But as they do so, the big victim is America’s reputation for competence—and along with it its European allies willingness to trust it and to work closely with it in future.

The feeling, most probably, is mutual. America has not been impressed by European leaders’ competence and effectiveness in recent years, especially in dealing with the sovereign debt crisis since 2010, and with their own foreign policies over Libya, Syria, Egypt, Iran and Russia, among others. Europe has fretted and frowned over American indecisiveness in the Middle East too, and especially over its incoherent thinking about Syria.

So the NSA affair will widen those cracks in the transatlantic relationship still further. It is much more important than the earlier Wikileaks revelations, even though those too exposed incompetence in protecting information. The material revealed by Wikileaks was embarrassing, but none of it was actually secret intelligence material, none of it was truly important. The Snowden revelations, by contrast, reach into the heart of intelligence-gathering.

All the western allies have had intelligence embarrassments before, especially during the Cold War. These usually involved the discovery of Soviet agents in senior positions. It is not commonly known, for example, that the reason why a European official has always been head of the International Monetary Fund ever since it was set up in 1944 is that the key architect of the IMF, an American official called Harry Dexter White who built both the Fund and the World Bank with the British economist Lord Keynes, was exposed as a Soviet spy. President Harry Truman chose to hand the IMF to Europe, even though it was the more powerful of the two new institutions, to avoid publicity and embarrassment over White’s spying.

Such incidents occurred in all our countries throughout the Cold War, and no doubt we were all spying on each other too. But knowledge that we had a common enemy kept us together, and American leadership was deemed too necessary to question it fundamentally. Today’s world is different. We Europeans still want American leadership, but we also want our leader to show not just power but competence. The NSA affair will hurt those desires.