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An insider view on government communications by Thomas Eymond-Laritaz

nvWhen it comes to diplomacy, electronic surveillance is generally useless, at best.

One of the main reasons the US Administration was spying on its international allies was to better understand them and leverage this knowledge to pursue the national interest. However, the Snowden revelations led to the exact opposite: an international diplomatic backlash and unprecedented defiance adding to an already weakened international position for the US.+

The main beneficiaries of the NSA scandal are actually the governments the US were criticising for extensive illegal spying, in particular China and Russia. Now the US has lost all credibility to complain about other countries’ spying habits. It would be the pot calling the kettle black.

China got another unexpected benefit – as the assembler of all the new cell phones required by numerous governments and public administrations now replacing their bugged devices.

Surveillance is often accepted and tolerated as long as it is kept secret. What is unpleasant is when this fact is made public. European and Latin American secret services knew perfectly well that US surveillance was taking place, because most of them are doing the exact same thing. But it was a blow to their national pride when it became publicly known that their leaders and many others were being bugged.

History shows that the mere collection of surveillance does not generally lead to better foreign policy choices. Did the US surveillance of the rest of the world help President George W. Bush understand that launching a campaign against the ‘Axis of Evil’ would not only antagonise much of the world but also increase terrorist actions against the US? Has the UK spying on its European counterparts helped Prime Minister David Cameron to increase its influence in Brussels?

Having worked with several Heads of States and Heads of Government, I have noticed that failures of leading politicians to position themselves well internationally do not stem from a lack of knowledgeable resources in their administration, but from the leaders’ isolation. Bureaucratic layers and lack of direct dialogue with the foreign service and independent international analysts prevent leaders from understanding the challenges they are facing.

Engaging directly with the political decision makers and providing them with the knowledge that is available outside their inner circles proves to be a key to foreign policy success. Building a parallel bureaucracy based on electronic surveillance does not help. The challenge is not gathering the intelligence, but effectively communicating it to the decision makers.

I have serious doubts that President Obama was given the SMSs of Angela Merkel, and even if he had been, would that have provided him with any useful information? I also wonder whether the US secret services have informed President Obama of the incredibly valuable insight they have gathered these last few months thanks to this surveillance: it seems that Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Dilma Rousseff are furious at the US. But this is classified information…

If spying does little good for diplomacy, then who benefits from it? National security and military operations, I hope. Surprisingly enough, it may also help to fight unemployment: it is now reported that the Chinese equivalent of the NSA employs more than two million people.

A few years ago, a Western European ambassador based in the Middle East confided in me that when he wanted to send false information to the Americans, Russians, Arabs and Israelis, he would put it in a fax to his ministry. This certainly has kept a few secret service agents busy. The funny thing is that a few years later this same ambassador eventually led his country’s intelligence agency. Who said that surveillance was totally useless for diplomats?


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