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British Eavesdropping: How Awkward at High Tea

By Ray McGovern - Posted on 17 June 2013

UK Grapples with Spying Disclosure

June 17, 2013

Editor Note: British authorities are scrambling to justify how they – while hosting a global economic summit in 2009 – spied on their guests with help from America’s National Security Agency. Some UK media outlets seem a little spooked themselves in getting commentary on the incident.

By Ray McGovern

How inconvenient for Great Britain. Just as world leaders of the G-8 countries gather for a meeting in Northern Ireland, The Guardian front-pages the news that the last time they got together in territory controlled by the UK, the British subjected them to the kind of intrusive eavesdropping that most folks still think is reserved for “suspected terrorists” or “foreign enemies.”

Even though this kind of monitoring is now widely seen by governments as de rigueur – whether in London, Washington, New York or wherever – we can assume that the new eavesdropping disclosure makes things a bit uncomfortable as G-8 leaders sit down together for friendly discussions about the global economy and other matters. Conceivably, it could even cause some embarrassment to the British government, even though the bar to embarrassment is already at an unprecedentedly high level.

British Prime Minister David Cameron.

The Guardian story revealed that when these world leaders from G-8 countries got together with others in London for two G-20 meetings in 2009, they had their computers monitored and their phone calls intercepted. The more naïve of the visitors were even enticed into Potemkin-Village-style Internet cafes set up by British intelligence to read their e-mail traffic. All this as a courtesy, with no extra charge, by the U.K. Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) – helpmate and handmaiden to the U.S. National Security Agency.

Special help came from NSA to handle the tougher technical challenges – like eavesdropping on then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as his phone calls passed through satellite links to Moscow. Even though Russian President Vladimir Putin has larger fish and chips to fry in this week’s UK visit, it will be difficult for him to resist the temptation to make political hay out of the eavesdropping disclosure.

Arriving in Northern Ireland today, British Prime Minister David Cameron refused to answer media questions about UK/US eavesdropping on his VIP colleagues. Meanwhile, “independent” UK media seem to be under some constraint – witness the bizarre behavior recently encountered by some of my British colleagues in Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence (SAAII).

Not surprisingly, two of them – Katharine Gun (formerly of GSHQ) and Craig Murray (former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan) – were eagerly sought for interviews to provide expertise and insight regarding the revelations about spying on visiting VIPs and other disclosures of joint GCHQ/NSA snooping emanating from documents leaked by American Edward Snowden.

Both Gun and Murray have a history of speaking truth to power. Gun disclosed NSA spying on (or attempted blackmailing of) UN Security Council members whose votes were sought to give some legal cover to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and Murray exposed human rights crimes in Uzbekistan. (For their risky truth-telling, both were recipients of SAAII awards.)

Despite the timeliness of getting their comments on the Guardian reports, the British media was having trouble trying to “manage” – as the British like to say – their efforts to flesh out the story. Here’s the text of Katharine Gun’s e-mail to SAAII members. (This is provided, in part, as a courtesy to GCHQ and NSA which, busy as they are today, probably have not yet had time to do anything more than collect and store the metadata.)

Katharine Gun wrote: “Anyone read the latest headlines in The Guardian today? Kind of strange, although don’t know if this sort of thing is perfectly normal. I got a call from Sky News, they wanted to interview me today regarding the latest releases, they said they would send a TV truck, then a call back to say the truck had technical problems.

“Next they propose to use the local TV studio, but needed to make sure there was a cameraman available; just got call back to say, ‘no cameraman, so have to call it off.’ Left it vaguely that they would be in touch perhaps at a later date.”

Ambassador Murray commented: “I had precisely the same experience and precisely the same excuse, last week with the BBC. They don’t have difficulty finding satellite trucks to film Prince William’s wife attending a gardening class.”

And, as if more were needed to prompt Edmund Burke, the great defender of the British press, to roll over in his grave, this just in from Annie Machon, another Sam Adams Associate for Integrity in Intelligence and former officer of Britain’s FBI equivalent, MI5. Her note strikes a discordant note regarding the BBC’s jealously guarded and broadly vaunted “fierce independence,” suggesting that the BBC has some sort of allergy to information originating with whistleblower Snowden that reflects poorly on the UK and its intelligence services.

She wrote: “Last Monday I got bumped at the last minute from BBC Newsnight at the height of the initial Snowden frenzy – Newsnight is the flagship UK evening news programme. They were keen to get me on, booking a studio in Dusseldorf (routine to do), and I was all ready to go, taxis arranged, etc., only to have the following message:

“‘I’m sorry also to say that the way things are looking, I don’t think we’ll actually need you for the discussion tonight. Everything has been up in the air, but the plans have just been finalised and they’re a little different to what we had in mind earlier, so I think we probably have to stand you down.’ This, after lots of emails and skype chats throughout the afternoon and evening.”

Back to Northern Ireland. Would it not be fascinating to be a fly on the wall as David Cameron tries to convince Putin and the others – out of earshot of President Obama – “The Americans made me do it.”

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He served for 30 years as a Army and CIA analyst and is now a coordinator of Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence and on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.

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