The Snowden revelations seem to be in the spotlight to stay, but do they make us any wiser about what is really going on in the world of intelligence gathering and sharing? And are we focusing too much on them?
Last week’s Snowden morsel was that Sweden allegedly has been a most valuable ally to the United States, with its own version of the NSA and FRA, providing unique intelligence on Russia in exchange for other valuable information.
The pattern of revelation, outrage, and debate has become a familiar one by now. The public has been introduced to various alliances, relationships, agencies, and electronic networks they might not have been aware of, but what have we actually learned beyond the headlines?
“I’m not sure that the public is all that more enlightened about how intelligence works,” said professor Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, professor emeritus of history at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and author of the book “In Spies We Trust: The Story of Western Intelligence,” (2013).
As a historian, he thinks people should be aware of the fact that intelligence gathering is something that has been going on since at least World War l. While leaders may act shocked today, they probably have a good idea of what is going on, including the fact that someone may be listening to their phone calls.
“[German Counselor Angela] Merkel was probably more annoyed at being made to look naive and foolish,” he said.
What has changed over time is the means of communication and the amount of data. While agents once tapped into the Atlantic cable for telegraph communication, we now have a global fiber-optic network relaying unimaginable amounts of data from one end of the world to the other. All of it is monitored by intelligence agencies of different countries with different laws and regulations. On top of that, they all have different agreements with other countries on what to share. It is a very complex situation.
The big change for ordinary citizens is that with the advent of the Internet, they are being monitored as well—not just military and political leaders. It is a reasonable fear, as information mopped up wholesale from the Internet could be very damaging if used against individual citizens to blackmail them or hinder their careers.
“It strikes a chord with people, and therefore they have been prepared to listen to Snowden,” Jeffreys-Jones said.
But the confusing situation and the emotional responses have also created one of the great misconceptions of the Snowden era, namely that everyone is being listened in on, according to Joseph Wippl, professor of international relations at Boston University, and a former CIA officer.
“A huge amount of data is collected, but no one looks at it; it’s basically data on a shelf,” Wippl said. “There is no manpower for that. Only when there are indications of terrorism, organized crime or [weapons] proliferation will anyone look at it.”
Professor Wippl also believes that the public doesn’t understand how extensive intelligence cooperation between countries is, depending on the closeness of their partnership.
“They are in contact literally every day of the week, discussing various issues,” he said, and added that there is even collaboration on certain levels between the West and countries that are not considered close partners, such as Russia, when it comes to issues like terrorism and proliferation.
The enormous focus on signals intelligence has also drawn attention away from other forms of intelligence gathering on the rise, such as satellites and drones, Jeffreys-Jones thinks. The French satellite program, for instance, is reaching a point where they will no longer be dependent on the United States for imaging. Meanwhile, more countries are increasing or building their own drone capacity.
Furthermore, the oldest of intelligence gathering tools—human beings—will remain important.
“That goes on many levels,” Wippl said. “From confidential relationships to traditional paid agents providing you intelligence on something.”
Signals intelligence may be a good tool for fighting terrorism and organized crime, but over time, human relationships may prove far more important for a country’s direction, as it is often not a question of knowing what is going on right now as much as what will happen down the line. This takes human relationships and human analysis—and time.
“Who is going to be a friend 20 years from now?” Wippl said “Is it important for the United States to really understand a country like Mexico, with which we share a 2,000-mile border? Unless you’re prepared to gather intelligence now on important people, countries, regions, and issues, you won’t have that intelligence when you need it 20 years from now.”
Lessons From History
But the importance of signals intelligence leaks should not be underestimated. Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones provides a historical parallel to the Snowden affair: Herbert Yardley was an American cryptologist who led the NSA forerunner the Black Chamber. The Black Chamber broke Japanese diplomatic codes in the 1920s, furnishing U.S. negotiators with important information during the Washington Naval Conference of 1921. After the organization was closed down, however, Yardley proceeded to write about this affair in his memoirs, thus making it public.
“The Japanese were deeply offended, much like [European countries, like Germany] today,” Jeffreys-Jones said.
One possible consequence of this was that Japan took a more military stance, as witnessed by the invasion of Manchuria in 1931. The alienation between the United States and Japan grew, and culminated in the attack on Pearl Harbor a decade later—a sobering lesson from history.