Spotlight on Geopolitics

Other people’s secrets

The secret US intelligence files and diplomatic correspondence released by WikiLeaks have not stirred my interest enough to read them in detail. To me, most of them are other people’s secrets. Important as some of these might be, I find it somewhat indelicate to take advantage of the opportunity of studying them this way.

At this point in time, I cannot say for sure whether the military intelligence official who leaked the files is a hero or a villain. I guess it all depends on where one stands on these issues. From the point of view of the Washington establishment the man is, understandably enough, the scourge of the earth. For political leaders around the world and even for the public at large, the revelations contained in the leaked documents are an eye-opener, when they aren’t downright shocking.

What is more interesting is Washington’s official reaction to the publishing of the documents. For a number of years now, American intelligence officials and their people around the world have been involved in the massive gathering of all sorts of information. Billions of dollars are being spent to enable organisations such as the NSA, CIA and others to peek at the private lives of ordinary citizens of allied countries, without their knowledge or consent.

Take, for example, Sweden’s case. This fall, Swedish intelligence officials have discovered that the US embassy in Stockholm has installed electronic devices that allows it to monitor the phone conversations of locals, all in the name of US national security. A few years back, a Greek employee of Vodafone from Athens committed suicide, after being required by his company to illegally tap the phone conversations of Greek ministers. Every day, millions of emails, faxes, calls and harmless transactions are being monitored by the Echelon system. The privacy of electronic correspondence in the Western world has ceased to be sacrosanct for a long time now, and this is but a small part of US intelligence gathering operations squarely directed against ordinary citizens of allied countries or their governments…

Intelligence gathering operations against countries outside the Western world are even more intense. Some time ago, China’s former president Jiang Zemin had sent his presidential Boeing to be serviced in the United States, only to find it packed full with hidden listening devices on arrival. Social networks like Twitter or Facebook are extensively used to destabilise less-than-friendly regimes like the one in Iran. Satellite surveillance of phone calls and sensitive installations in such countries have become routine, resulting in driving many such activities underground in order to avoid detection.

These are but a few reasons why I consider the US’ official attitude to the leaks as highly hypocritical. When a country, superpower or not, is prepared to go to such lengths and expense to spy on citizens’ lives, correspondence and phones, it should expect to get a taste of its own medicine in return.

Worse still, the documents portray the US as a paranoid superpower, one whose officials trust no-one, friend or foe. Mrs Clinton instructs her personnel to gather biometric data, phone numbers, credit card details and miscellaneous dirt on foreign leaders and diplomats. Her actions bring to mind Elena Ceausescu’s bugging of ministers’ houses and her sick interest in their sex lives, private conversations and bank accounts. In true American style, Ceausescu himself invested huge amounts of badly-needed cash to install sophisticated telephone exchanges in every county, capable of monitoring the phone conversations of all Romania’s citizens. (Meanwhile, the country’s economy was going to the dogs…) Indeed, what’s the difference between the dictator’s paranoid hunger for other people’s secrets and the United States’ insatiable appetite for similar kind of data ? By the look of it, the difference is only one of scale.

In this poisoned atmosphere, I, for one, have largely given up using the phone to communicate with friends and family for some time now. If one can’t have a private conversation, why have one at all ? I’ve been through this absurd situation only once before – during the Ceausescu years. I had never expected,however, that this time around the people responsible for trampling upon our collective rights to privacy would be the officials of a country calling itself “the beacon of freedom and democracy”.

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