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Political analysis and other daily rants on the state of the nation

Sunday | March 02, 2003

Please Speak Clearly into the Lamp

Who says the Bush administration doesn't listen to the UN? The London Observer says it has evidence to the contrary.

The paper claims to have laid its hands on a secret National Security Agency memo describing a clandestine campaign to eavesdrop on UN Security Council delegates.

Most people probably know that the NSA -- aka the "puzzle palace" -- is the highly secretive federal agency that monitors, intercepts and tries to decode foreign communications traffic. But I'll mention it anyway.

According to the Observer, the NSA has launched a surveillance "surge" against delegations from the six Security Council members -- Mexico, Chile, Angola, Pakistan, Guinea and Camroon -- that might hold the key to the U.S.-backed resolution endorsing an invasion of Iraq.

A surge, it seems, is a highly intensive effort to monitor all electronic communications activity by the targeted individuals over a defined period of time. Whether that includes bugging their homes and offices is not stated, but implied.

Supposedly, the memo was sent to an official in the GCHQ -- the NSA's British counterpart. This makes sense, because since the end of World War II the two agencies have had an intelligence sharing agreement under which they each take responsibility for listening in on different parts of the world. Africa is on the GCHQ's beat, so their help would be needed to keep tabs on the Angolans, Guineans and Cameroonians (Cameroonies?)

Now obviously the NSA is by nature a rather creepy organization. But it's also an incredibly powerful weapon in the fight against terrorism. Used appropriately, it can do a lot of good. But this is the Bush adminstration, so of course, the odds of it being used inappropriately are about, oh, 1 to 1.

Bugging the UN Security Council, and then getting caught doing it, would seem to meet the threshold definition of "inappropriate." Not to mention colossally stupid. And I'm sure you're all just as surprised as I am to hear that the Bush administration may have done something colossally stupid.

According to the Observer, the whole thing was Condi Rice's idea. Which may be true, or may just mean that a British intelligence official in Washington or London (the probable source) really doesn't like Condi Rice. Or, that one of Rice's enemies in the administration decided this was great opportunity to stick a knife in her.

If the leak was from British intelligence, I think it would be significant. Traditionally, U.S. intelligence officials have treated their British counterparts as "part of the family." And they've shared information accordingly, without a lot of the "no foreign distribution" restrictions applied to other services, even in other allied countries.

By and large, that trust has been kept -- at least since the bad old days of the Philby/Burgess/Maclean spy ring. But now, somebody on the British side apparently has decided the "cousins" have gone too far. Could it be that not everybody in Britain's "pemanent government" shares Tony Blair's blind loyalty to Bush's Middle East crusade?

Of course, there's no guarantee the story is true. Like its sister paper, the Guardian, the Observer is perhaps a little too credulous when it comes to big splashy scoops. But its a respectable, left-of-center paper, not a scandal sheet. And they certainly seem to have done their legwork: they confirmed the existence of the author of the alleged memo, and even tracked down his office phone number(!) So I think it's real.

The story is spreading around the world, but so far no mention in the US big media. (If somebody sees something, please post a comment and tell us where.) My guess is that the Times and the Post are burning up the phone lines right now trying to confirm it. They'll ignore it until they can.

If they can't confirm it, they may go right on ignoring it -- or write it up as an anecdote in a story about how hostile the foreign press has become. I mean, the idea that a president of the United States would actually bug his opponents' offices is just absurd, right?


Posted March 02, 2003 12:21 PM | Comments (51)


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