The NSA has a majority of Europe under its surveillance. The latest revelations detail the agency grabbed the data on 60 million Spanish phone calls during roughly the same 30-day period it grabbed data on 70 million French calls. Add to that 46 million calls from Italy and you've got something that resembles the NSA's domestic surveillance (via the Section 215 bulk records collections) deployed abroad, according to Paul Hamilos' writeup for The Guardian.
An NSA graphic, entitled "Spain – last 30 days", reportedly shows the daily flow of phone calls within Spain, and that on one day alone – 11 December 2012 – the NSA monitored more than 3.5m phone calls. It appears that the content of the calls was not monitored but the serial and phone numbers of the handsets used, the locations, sim cards and the duration of the calls were. Emails and other social media were also monitored.
More specifically, there's an untold number of European officials receiving more intense scrutiny from the agency (Merkel and 35 others
, according to the numbers being thrown around), with German Chancellor Angela Merkel being the most notable
, or at least, the most publicly outraged (although, as Glenn Greenwald points out, largely silent when news broke that the NSA was spying on German citizens
). Whether Obama did or didn't know
about this surveillance of Merkel, which went on for more than a decade, is hardly worth determining. If he did, it's the acceptable lying face of international diplomacy. But if he truly didn't, it just shows how completely secretive the NSA has been. The NSA constantly points to "rigorous oversight" when defending its actions, but there's no one person or group in the government that seems to have been fully apprised of its activities.
Spain has reacted to this news much like France did and has summoned the US Ambassador for an explanation and (presumably) a bit of yelling. Despite the fact that nations spy on other nations all the time, the public outcry surrounding these leaks has prompted a unified European front demanding answers and changes from the US. This may not all
be a diversion, however. While nations are completely expected to spy on other state agencies and officials (like Merkel, etc.), the collection of data on millions of private phone calls isn't.
The outcry has also helpfully diverted attention away from these nations' own domestic surveillance programs. France apparently has domestic surveillance that rivals the NSA's, but that's being buried by the pushback against the NSA's bulk collections. According to a commentary piece in eldiaro.es
, Spain has its own domestic surveillance program that is roughly aligned with the bulk records collections in the US. And, unsurprisingly, there's very little oversight governing these activities, as is explained here by Hamilos
Under Spanish law a judge must give permission before a phone can be tapped, and is then required to permanently supervise the execution of that legal order. According to Boye, there are around one million phone lines currently being monitored in Spain, and given the number of judges, he says that works out at an average 600 wiretaps supposedly being supervised by each judge. That's a lot of work. As he suggests, it is impossible that this monitoring is really receiving any proper judicial oversight.
While it may seem odd for the NSA to be viewed a scapegoat, there's plenty of evidence out there that the countries making the most noise about US spying are deploying plenty of intrusive domestic surveillance of their own.
As we discussed last week, the UK's GCHQ has been covering up
its activities for years in order to avoid being "held back" by the country's laws. The GCHQ has also enjoyed a mutually advantageous relationship
with the NSA over the years, receiving "tens of millions of dollars" to fund surveillance programs that feed directly or indirectly into the US agency's intel.
In recent weeks, UK Prime Minister David Cameron has gone on record to condemn The Guardian's decision (and to urge the opening
of an investigation) to publish leaked documents and claimed that its decision to do so has harmed the security of the nation. Despite these bursts of pro-spying rhetoric, Cameron has now added his signature to a EU memorandum expressing concern about the NSA's foreign spying. Somewhere between hypocrisy and desperation lies Cameron, a man who vigorously defends his nation's domestic spying apparatus (and by extension, the NSA's activities) but feels compelled by forces beyond his control to present a unified front with Europe's more powerful nations
To those outside the diplomatic bubble, the statement might seem anodyne, but it is already being interpreted as a slap in the face to Washington because it talks of the US-EU partnership being "based on respect and trust, including as concerns the work and co-operation of secret services".
The line in the memorandum warning that "a lack of trust could prejudice" counter-terrorism operations is particularly wounding for Cameron, seeing as Downing Street is desperate to claim that Edward Snowden's leaked documents – not the behaviour of the NSA or GCHQ – have been a gift to terrorists and criminals.
UK intelligence agencies have definitely benefited from the NSA's actions, actions which are now being decried all over Europe. Cameron may be in a bad position at the moment (but he's also on the way out the door...), but his signature delivered out of obligation will have little effect on the cozy relationship between the US and UK intelligence agencies. Neither country's intelligence agencies are willing to give up this two-way flow of information. If anything, the NSA will be receiving information it can't get elsewhere, even with the programs it's deployed all over Europe. The laws governing the GCHQ have given the agency a very exploitable phrase (on par with the NSA's interpretation
of the word "relevant") which gives the agency the legal authority to pursue other nation's officials even more extensively than the NSA can, as the Guardian's Nick Hopkins points out.
When the Intelligence Services Act was passed in 1994 it included a line – inserted at the last minute – that Britain's spy agencies could legitimately seek intelligence that would support the "economic wellbeing" of the country. This provision is one of the most opaque in the legislation and could be interpreted to justify espionage on just about any head of state or company chief executive, though this would require ministerial approval.
If "ministerial approval" equates roughly with the approval process of the FISA court, then there's effectively no limit to who the GCHQ can pursue. Earlier reporting suggests this is the case
So, while Europe is being hit with details of foreign spying, European leaders are keeping the focus on the NSA while their own domestic surveillance programs continue unabated. As more details surface, this convenient facade is likely to crumble. If the US is working with the GCHQ to spy on citizens of the UK, there's no doubt it has set up data-sharing surveillance programs in other countries as well.