How Britain spies on friends and rivals alike

LONDON (AP) — Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks to the Guardian newspaper have thrown back the curtain on the world of diplomatic espionage, revealing — in explicit detail — how British spies monitor enemies and allies alike. So what does GCHQ, Britain’s eavesdropping agency, actually do? And how does it do it? And is any of this really all that surprising?

—GCHQ targets phone calls, emails, and more

Documents quoted by the Guardian newspaper showed that GCHQ engaged in an aggressive espionage campaign against foreign diplomats, attacking their phones, their emails, and even satellite communications in a bid to give senior British leaders a real-time account of who was saying what to whom. For the first time, the newspaper aired evidence that Britain launched cyberattacks against foreign diplomats, using malicious software to steal passwords, eavesdrop on emails, and apparently even hack smartphones. The Guardian said that during the 2009 G-20 summit in London information was being gathered so quickly that a team of 45 analysts monitored the interplay of delegates’ phone calls live on a 15 square meter (18 square yard) video wall of GCHQ’s operations center.

—GCHQ targets enemies and allies alike

It seems logical to spy on the Russians, whose relations with Britain have long been rocky. But the Guardian says Britain also targeted South Africa and Turkey. The paper quoted one leaked document as saying that, with respect to Turkey, the analysts’ “reporting requirements” were to ascertain Ankara’s attitudes toward financial regulation and reform, as well as Turkish “willingness (or not) to co-operate with the rest of the G20 nations.”

Why not just ask?

“No allies have 100 percent unity. There are always disputes, differences of opinion, and emphases,” said William Keylor, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He said that knowing the mind of your negotiating partner can help you better tailor your offers or prompt you to drive a harder bargain.

Or, as his Boston University colleague Joseph Wippl put it in an email, “If you know through intelligence the bottom line of the negotiating position of your adversary, you will get a better deal — on Syria, or your car.”

—None of this should come as any surprise

Spying on diplomats is as old as diplomacy itself, and the specter of electronic surveillance has hung over international meetings for the better part of the past century. In 1945, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin received daily digests of Americans’ conversations from bugged meeting rooms at the Yalta Conference. Rhodesian leader Ian Smith insisted on huddling with his advisers in the women’s toilets when he visited London in 1965 because he was convinced that was the one place British spies would not have dared to install listening devices, according to an account published in Richard J. Aldrich’s book, “GCHQ.”

Keylor said that at a 1974 arms control summit in Vladivostok, U.S. President Gerald Ford led his shivering delegation into sub-zero temperatures outside to discuss their negotiating strategy out of range of Soviet microphones.

More recently, U.S. spies are alleged to have targeted U.N. Security Council delegates in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Aldrich said in a telephone interview that it was no surprise that spooks spy on diplomats, although he was quick to add that when such spying comes to light, “it really, really annoys the intelligence agencies — and it really, really, really annoys the countries that are targets.”

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