In the most blatant breach of the sacred guest right since the Red Wedding, the Guardian reported this morning that the United States and British intelligence agencies spied of foreign politicians and officials who took part in two G20 summit meetings in London in 2009 by monitoring their computers and intercepting their phone calls. While this news is not particularly surprising, it is insightful and likely to shape the tone of discussion at this week's G8 summit in Britain.
According to documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the intent of the British spying was “to ensure that intelligence relevant to [Her Majesty’s Government’s] desired outcomes for its presidency of the G20 reaches customers at the right time and in a form which allows them to make full use of it."
A second document implies that the information gathered was being used by British delegates in real time: "In a live situation such as this, intelligence received may be used to influence events on the ground taking place just minutes or hours later. This means that it is not sufficient to mine call records afterwards – real-time tip-off is essential."
Not surprisingly, the report also implicates the NSA, which it was revealed has been collecting phone records and internet data on Americans. It does, however, come at an unfortunate time for both governments who are meeting at the G8 in Britain with the very nations they are reported to have spied on.
President Obama is set to meet with Vladimir Putin on Monday to discuss the contentious arming of both sides in the Syrian civil war. As if that topic weren’t controversial enough, Obama will now have to deal with the blowback of the Guardian report that claims the United States intercepted phone calls between then-Russian President Dimitry Medvedev and the Russia delegates in London.
The blunt of the report deals with the spying of the NSA’s British sister organization, GCHQ, sanctioned by Prime Minister Gordon Brown. GCHQ is shown to have spied on long standing allies such as South Africa and Turkey using, among other tactics, the "active collection against an email account that acquires mail messages without removing them from the remote server" – i.e. "reading people's email before/as they do."
Although the purposes of the spying were relatively mundane and predictable, the report does offer nearly unprecedented insight into the world of modern international espionage. In March, U.S. intelligence leaders announced that they were considering cyber attacks and espionage as a greater security threat to the United States than terrorism.
Last year the Associated Press released the findings of an investigation showing that GCHQ’s spying on allies is not out of the ordinary. The story details the mutual-spying relationship of the CIA and Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service. The CIA considers Israel its No. 1 Middle Eastern counterintelligence threat, surpassed globally by only China.
As with South Africa for the GCHQ, the CIA considers Israel as a second-tier ally, known as “Friends of Friends,” a term derived from the phrase, "Friends don't spy on friends.” While neither case is likely to have any long-term consequences, it may have ramifications at the G8 meeting beginning Monday.
At this week’s conference, President Obama will face European leaders largely worried about the global economy, the worsening situation in Syria, and uncertainty about U.S. leadership abroad. But in a similar fashion to last week’s summit between Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the Guardian’s continued revelations risk overshadowing any substance coming out of the G8 summit.