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​NSA, BND and MIT: Whose Big Brother is watching whom?

Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar residing in İstanbul, with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the Greater Middle East. He tweets at @theerimtanangle

Published time: August 20, 2014 14:29
Reuters / Michael Dalder

When news broke last summer that a certain NSA contractor had "leaked" an inordinate amount of secret data to various media outlets, global public opinion suddenly realized that the world we live in today does resemble the Orwellian dystopia 1984.

The National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden made material available to journalist Glenn Greenwald, and the British broadsheet The Guardian published its first Snowden-related article on 5-6 June 2013. Greenwald laconically wrote then that the "National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America's largest telecoms providers,” revealing the tip of the surveillance iceberg that was made public by the contractor. Edward Snowden outed himself as the NSA leaker on 9 June 2013 "in a video interview with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras."

Snowden fled from Hawaii to Hong Kong to Russia, where he was granted temporary asylum that has recently been extended. Originally allowed to stay one year, on 1 August he was given a three-year extension.

The Snowden leaks revealed a whole host of top secret surveillance programs, not just designed to spy on US citizens (in true 1984 Big Brother style) but rather to cast a worldwide web that appears to target virtually everybody anywhere: for starters there is the program called PRISM, a mass electronic data mining program launched in 2007 that collects data at the ISP level (via "front door access to Google and Yahoo user accounts through a court-approved process"), and that is known to have been used for the purpose of spying on Venezuela, for information on military procurement and its oil production; but also on Mexico, for information regarding narcotics, the country's internal security and political affairs; and also on Columbia, for information on drug trafficking and the FARC.

Snowden also disclosed the existence of a program known as MUSCULAR that can access data centers around the world, and is operated jointly with the British GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) located in Cheltenham (Gloucestershire). The journalists Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani maintain that the "NSA and the GCHQ are [routinely] copying entire data flows across fiber-optic cables that carry information among the data centers of the Silicon Valley giants,” that are the companies Yahoo and Google. Or a program called XKeyscore, was also divulged by Snowden – a program that "allows analysts to search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals" worldwide, as worded by Greenwald.

The worldwide ramifications of these NSA activities were really exposed when news broke last October that Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel had been specifically targeted by NSA contractors, acting on orders received from higher-ups. Allegations emerged that Merkel's mobile phone was tapped by the US spy agency.

As a result, the German government, the Bundestag, convened an NSA investigation committee. One of its members, the Green Party MP Konstantin von Notz at the time remarked that he assumed that "the tapping of Angela Merkel's cell phone must have involved active decisions by real people, whereas the monitoring of 80 million Germans would have been a matter of algorithms and people analyzing the results. Both actions amount to violations of German law. Whether you have a human being or a computer opening and scanning your letters for individual words, it's the same thing, because government authorities have gained this information.”

In fact, it even transpired that Merkel's predecessor; the Social Democrat Gerhard Schroder's telephone calls had also been monitored more than 10 years ago, arguably as a result of his critical stance on the US Iraq policy. In the summer of 2002, Schroder said that "[w]e are prepared to [show] solidarity. But this country under my leadership is not available for [any kind of] adventure". And so, the German Chancellor got caught in an intricate NSA net. When this US surveillance of the one-time German leader became public knowledge, Schroder went on the record to say that he "would never have imagined that I was being bugged by American services then, but now I am no longer surprised". Merkel, in turn, said that "spying among friends is not at all acceptable". As a result, the United States, renowned for its enthusiastic role as the world's policeman also became infamous as the contemporary's world's Big Brother, watching or rather listening to every word spoken, not just words expressed by potential terrorists or misunderstood foreigners but also (and primarily) US citizens as well as foreign leaders. Hence, Europeans felt reassured that America had stepped across the line of common decency.

But now, it turns out, not just the US National Security Agency (or NSA), but even the German Bundesnachrichtendienst (or BND) is not above listening to its NATO allies. The well-respected and renowned German periodical Der Spiegel has revealed that the BND "accidentally" picked up a telephone conversation of US Secretary of State John Kerry last year.

Kerry had been discussing the situation in the Middle East via a satellite link and his words got caught in the surveillance net spread by the BND (Der Spiegel literally uses the noun 'Beifang', a fishery term referring to additional prey caught in a ship's fishing nets). The magazine continues that words spoken by Kerry's predecessor Hillary Clinton had also gotten caught in a similar BND surveillance network. The piece in Der Spiegel maintains that one of Clinton's 2012 telephone conversations with then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had thus been similarly apprehended by the German intelligence agency. But much more sinister is the Spiegel claim that the German government has been listening to Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for years now – since 2009, actually. In fact, the still current BND "mission profile", dating back to 2009 and currently under review due to the NSA scandal, declares that Turkey is regarded as an "official surveillance target" of the German government.

Even though Germany has thus for years been routinely spying on its ally Turkey, this news item somehow appears to evade Western news cycles, instead sufficing to concentrate on the "accidental" tapping of Kerry and Clinton. In Turkey, by contrast, the news has been met with dismay and disgust.

In response, the Turkish government (currently still led by the soon to be President Erdogan) has summoned the German Ambassador Eberhard Pohl to provide a "formal and satisfactory explanation" on Monday, 18 August 2014. The wily Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that the allegations are "unacceptable, inexcusable and would require an explanation,” going on to say that "[i]t is also a moral responsibility that arises from our relationship as allies.” Relations between Merkel and Erdogan have been strained for years now, and this latest scandal does not augur well.

The BND was set up in 1989 and is directly accountable to the office of the Chancellor. While in Turkey Erdogan has recently reformed the nation's National Intelligence Organization’s (MIT), transforming the organization into the Prime Minister's Praetorian Guard, as I have argued. As such, I reasoned that a "new internet bill in tandem with the new MIT law would undoubtedly transform Turkey into an 'intelligence' and 'surveillance state', somewhat rivaling the US.”

As a result, it seems that President Obama was caught eavesdropping on Chancellor Merkel, who now in turn has been caught listening to PM (soon to be President) Erdogan . . . In view of the fact that Turkey has for years been courting Germany and other European nations in order to join the EU -- actually dating back to September 1959 when Ankara applied for associate membership of the then-European Economic Community (EEC) -- these latest revelations could very well undermine Turkey's resolve to stay the course as a NATO and aspiring EU member. On 9 November 2010, Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the Reuters news agency that “We have been kept waiting at the gates of the EU for 50 years. We are still waiting and waiting and still in the negotiating process.” Erdogan added that public opinion in Turkey was becoming “offended with the situation,” and that “[s]ince the game [of accession negotiations] started [on 17 December 2004], new rules have been brought into the game.” Germany under Merkel, as the EU's strongest and wealthiest member, has been opposed to Turkish accession, and the 2009 BND "mission profile" seems to indicate a level of distrust seldom encountered amongst allies. In 2011, Tayyip Erdogan said the following: “I have no secret agenda. I am explicit in everything I say. If the reality among the Europeans is ‘We don’t want Turkey among us,’ then they should say it clearly. I will accept it, with pleasure!”

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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