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NSA spying row reveals tensions between imperialist powers

Widespread anger across the world and embarrassment in Washington has greeted the news that the US security services and its closest allies, particularly Britain, have been spying both on their supposed allies and tens of millions of ordinary people around the world.

Nearly every day there are new examples of mass surveillance, the latest being that in a few weeks around the last New Year, over 60 million Spanish phone calls were tapped. But this was not new, earlier it had been revealed that in one month 70 million French phone calls were tapped.

Example after example has appeared illustrating how the US and other governments’ security services, particularly Britain’s, have played fast and loose with the formal, “democratic” controls over their activities.

News of the US government’s surveillance of foreign rulers has had a particular effect in Latin America where it is seen as just another example of the US rulers’ arrogance. But also in Europe there is widespread popular anger, especially in Germany, France and Spain.

Now the Obama administration, faced with mounting anger inside and outside the US, has begun to distance itself from the NSA (National Security Agency). Suddenly Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chair of the Senate intelligence committee, has announced she is “totally opposed” to spying on allies. At the same time, the Republication author of the Patriot Act has announced new measures to limit NSA activities in the US itself.

Feinstein claimed that Obama was “not aware” of the bugging of German chancellor Merkel’s mobile phones, but whether this is really true or an attempt at saving face is not clear. Certainly capitalist state machines are not necessarily controlled by political leaders, they can act as a “state within a state”. Way back in the 1950s, Republican US president Eisenhower warned of the influence of a “military-industrial complex”. In Britain, the former minister Chris Huhne now says that Cabinet ministers and members of the national security council were told nothing about the existence and scale of the vast data-gathering programmes run by British and American intelligence agencies. Ministers were in “utter ignorance” of the two biggest covert operations, Prism and Tempora.

Certainly political leaders, including solidly pro-capitalist politicians, are not necessarily told what the “security state” actually is doing. However the long time it has taken the Obama administration to distance itself from some of the NSA’s activities heightens suspicions that it is only retreating now under pressure.

Edward Snowden’s revelations

The fact is that former US defence contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations have had an increasing impact. They continue to shine some shafts of light onto the attempts to build “security states” around the world, the attempt to use “terrorist threats” as a justification for curtailing democratic rights and the very real tensions that exist between most powers, including so-called ‘allies‘. This is why Cameron in Britain has continued to denounce the exposures. However Cameron is a bit slow and flat footed, at almost the very same time as he was threatening the media with more controls both Democratic and Republican US politicians were beginning to take limited steps to appease US and international anger.

It is perhaps no accident that the US’s tapping of Merkel’s phone began in the run-up to the 2003 war on Iraq. The then Bush administration, along with Blair, did not trust either the French or German governments which were opposed to the invasion of Iraq. That is why they starting spying on German, and probably many more, leaders. As this included people like Merkel, then an opposition leader, it probably also meant that leaders of the Schröder-led German government were also spied upon. Yet this is just a small part of what was obviously a huge operation to spy on opponents of the Iraq war.

However it is really no surprise that states are trying to make the maximum use it can of new technologies to increase their powers. The scale of what now can be done is striking. The US National Security Agency is building capacity to process 20bn “record events” every single day. This is not simply phone calls, website visits, sms or email messages but, according to the New York Times, the NSA can “augment the communications data with material from public, commercial and other sources, including bank codes, insurance information, Facebook profiles, passenger manifests, voter registration rolls and GPS location information, as well as property records and unspecified tax data”.

Neither is it surprising that states, including allies, spy on each other. As has been repeatedly said since Snowden started releasing documents, at the end of the day each state defends its own interests, i.e. the interests of its ruling class.

Nevertheless the lack of trust between national leaders and the arrogant way in which the US, and its very closest allies, were prepared to treat their less close allies is breath-taking.

The fact that Angela Merkel was, for 13 years, one of at least 35 national leaders being bugged shows how the NSA used new technology to enormously expand its technical reach. While now apologising for bugging some leaders, Obama, who as a presidential candidate was famous for always having a Blackberry in his hand, has overseen a big growth in US cyber activity, ranging from mass surveillance to increased assassination by drones.

Public anger in Germany has forced Merkel to publically acknowledge that the US government was bugging her mobile phone. Initially back in August, as the German election campaign was starting, Merkel’s chief of staff dismissed the issue as being “finished” because she feared that such revelations could boost the Pirate party. Now the impact of this in Germany has led to a special session of the parliament (the Bundestag), being called to discuss it. But this session has been delayed until mid-November, obviously to allow time for a deal to be done with the US. Merkel, along with French president Hollande, is using this scandal to demand that Germany and France are let into the US led “inner circle” of spies, currently called “Five Eyes”, that share information and “promise” not to spy on one another. Formally the “Five Eyes” grouping may be extended, but this would probably only be a formal “equality”, and unofficial closer links would still exist between intelligence services in some countries.

Underlying conflicts of interests between states

The very existence of “Five Eyes” and Britain’s closeness to the US is an illustration of how underlying conflicts of interests, potential or current, between states can continue.

Britain’s closeness, the so-called “special relationship”, with the US stems from the historic decline of British capitalism from its position of once being the “workshop of the world”. Faced, from the mid-Nineteenth century onwards with rising competitors, British capitalism sought to manoeuvre, particularly from the new international powers of the US and newly united Germany. At one stage, sections of the British ruling class were thinking of supporting the Confederacy in the American civil war. Later, when faced with the rise of German capitalism, Britain’s rulers turned towards an alliance with its traditional enemy, France. But this alliance was too weak to successfully challenge German imperialism and so, in both World Wars, British capitalism became increasingly reliant on the US. However this was a gradual process. The US was not sure what would happen as it sought to replace Britain as the dominant world power. It was only in mid-1939 that Washington stopped developing its “War Plan Red” for a possible conflict with Britain and its then Empire.

The Second World War cemented this relationship and was the basis for the 1946 intelligence agreement that eventually became the Five Eyes group, an intelligence sharing operation originally established by the US and Britain in 1946 and then extended over the following 10 years to include Canada, Australia and New Zealand. After the failure of the 1956 Anglo-French Suez invasion, which the US opposed, the British ruling class accepted that it no longer act in a totally independent fashion.

The resulting British dependence on the US has put Cameron in a difficult position as Snowden’s leaks continue. More and more evidence is coming out of Britain’s role in the US spying operation, like GCHQ’s Temora operation to tap international fibre-optic cables or its own operations against Belgium and Italy.

The British government is desperately trying to cover its own tracks and shut down criticism by endlessly repeating the claim that Snowden’s leaks were damaging the fight against terrorism. Thus Andrew Parker, the MI5 boss, says these leaks have done “enormous damage”. Cameron, speaking just after the news of the bugging of Merkel’s phones made international headlines, dismissed all the complaints as “la-di-dah, airy-fairy” criticisms of Britain’s “brave” spies. He evaded answering the question of whether the British security services were involved in spying on other European leaders. How “brave” the security services have to be when bugging European leaders is open to question.

These pleas to trust the state are not plausible. One of the reasons for Snowden’s actions was that his bosses were lying to the US Congress. No-one has forgotten the lies that surrounded the British and US governments’ drive towards invading Iraq. This continual lying and deceit is one reason why the security and military services themselves are not “secure”. Operatives such as Snowden, Chelsea Manning (former known as Bradley Manning) and others, disgusted at what they see, leak information.

Internationally there is a growing popular feeling that unaccountable states are gaining more and more powers over and knowledge of the lives of ordinary people. There is also widespread disgust at the generous compliance of the telecoms and social media multinationals to the security services’ requests.
In Cameron’s Britain, the increasing exposure and questioning of police methods, including lying, is further undermining trust in the state. This has been re-enforced by “Plebgate”, a claimed police frame-up of a Cabinet member, even though it may turn out to be ham-fisted attempt to use “normal” fabrication methods to block government changes to the police conditions, rather than to secure a conviction.

Of course, if one believes for a minute Cameron’s fantasy approach to the bugging of Merkel then the implications are far-reaching. If the US and British governments’ only target is fighting terrorism then the implication of bugging Merkel’s mobile is that her government is running terrorist operations or maybe they think she is building a Fourth Reich!

However the reality is that one of the aspects Snowden has exposed is the rivalry between nation states, which is why the US bugged Merkel and other foreign leaders. The Republican Chair of the US House of Representatives intelligence committee was quite open, telling CNN that the US should try to protect its interests “at home and abroad”, while adding that “sometimes our friends have relationships with our adversaries”. This is the reason why, as the Wall Street Journal has reported, that the bugging of some of the 35 foreign leaders the NSA targeted is still continuing today.

Renewed rivalries

There has been a fundamental shift in the world situation over the last two decades. To a certain extent, the post-1945 division of the world into competing capitalist and non-capitalist sectors provided the glue which held most of the major capitalist powers together. They then felt threatened that a rival system existed and thereby showed that capitalism was not the “only show in town”. This was despite the fact that, notwithstanding their formal names, these countries were not socialist as they were run by totalitarian elites. However these states’ economies were not capitalist, and their problems were not the ones of capitalist booms and slumps. But, as we have pointed out before, the collapse of these regimes removed a rival system to capitalism. The restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe, along with the tremendous growth of the capitalist economy in China, removed a common threat to the capitalist powers and allowed a freer rein to national rivalries between them.

While the new extent of globalisation, the integration of production and markets around the world have held back international relations dramatically worsening during these first years since the world economic crisis erupted in 2007/8, the rivalries between the competing powers have not gone away. It is not accidental that aspects of the US bugging campaign is seen by other countries as part of an attempt to get a stronger hand in trade negotiations. But it is certain that other countries do the same as they attempt to steal an advantage over one another.

Many in countries like France and Spain, has been shocked by stories of tens of millions of phone calls, texts and emails being checked by the NSA just in one month. But the complaints of their governments are hypocritical as their own security services are no better. They have had their own security scandals.
In Germany there are the open questions as to why the security services were unable to track down or stop the NSU underground Nazi grouping that carried out 10 murders after 2000 and why security files relating to the NSU were destroyed.

French governments have particularly been prepared to intervene brutally to defend their interests, something that has been frequently seen in francophone Africa, but also wider afield. In 1985, during the rule of the so-called “socialist” president Mitterrand, the French foreign intelligence service attempted to prevent any interference with a planned nuclear weapons test by bombing the flagship of the Greenpeace fleet, the Rainbow Warrior, with the loss of one life, while it was moored in the port of Auckland, New Zealand.

State machine cannot indefinitely hold back people rising

For socialists the defence of democratic rights of the mass of working people is essential. This includes opposition to increased powers to an unaccountable, and therefore undemocratic, state and its forces.

However history has shown again and again that a state machine cannot indefinitely hold back a people rising in struggle. Right now, Egypt is a good case in point. The US’s modern technology could not prevent the overthrow of its ally Mubarak in 2011. Instead both the Egyptian military and its US ally were forced to retreat and hope that they could exploit the weaknesses of the revolutionary movement to buy time and prepare counter-blow. Unfortunately now, under General Sisi, the military are attempting, step by step, to re-consolidate their power. But, as recent workers’ struggles have shown, the story of the Egyptian revolution is not over. Like all other revolutions, the Egyptian revolution’s fate will not be decided by bugging or hacking but by how the mass movement develops, especially whether or not the working people can agree upon a socialist programme which can give them power and break the rule of unaccountable elites and their security forces.

This is why, at the end of day, it will not be spies but working people who will have the opportunity to reshape the world.

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