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Bugging and spies – just how powerful are the world’s intelligence services?

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Issue 2378

That states and companies spy on each other is neither new nor surprising. They are pushed to do so as part of their desperate scramble to get the upper hand over each other. Many of the revelations that have recently filled the news come from documents released by fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The carefully managed leaks by the Washington Post, the Guardian and others can be a little boring. Yet the scale of the revelations is a devastating insight into the cynicism of those who run capitalism. James R Clapper, US director of national intelligence, said that they spy on allies simply to see “if what they’re saying gels with what’s actually going on”. 

Also they need to know how other countries’ policies “impact us across a whole range of issues”. This is a euphemistic way of saying that the US is trying to gain inside information about its allies’ political goals and strategies.

Vladimir Putin spied on world leaders at the last G20 summit by giving them computer memory sticks which used “Trojan horse” software to download sensitive information.


Then the Russians complained that the Chinese were spying on them using kettles and toasters with secret chips in them. But while every country is spying on everyone else, the US has by far the largest operation. 

The computers of the US National Security Agency (NSA) “vacuum the entire electromagnetic spectrum”, homing in on key words. Its junior partner is Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) based in Cheltenham. 

The collaboration between the two agencies offers advantages to both. It makes monitoring the globe easier and solves tricky legal problems.

The agencies simply swap each other’s dirty work. So GCHQ eavesdrops on calls made by American citizens and the NSA monitors calls made by British citizens, thus allowing each government plausibly to deny it has tapped its own citizens’ calls. 

Global communications have moved from wires and satellites to undersea and underground fibreoptic cables carrying millions of calls and emails at a time. The whole business of intelligence gathering has shifted. Its emphasis is now on what journalist James Bamford refers to as “collection first” in his book The Shadow Factory. 

All the data is sucked into the NSA’s computers. They then sift the communications to get what they want. 


Britain runs a secret internet-monitoring station somewhere in the Middle East. It intercepts and processes vast quantities of emails, telephone calls and web traffic on behalf of Western intelligence agencies.

This taps into and extracts data from the underwater fibre-optic cables passing through the region. But this can generate too much information to coherently interpret.

So, just after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, looters were ransacking Baghdad. US intelligence agencies monitoring phone calls across the city and kept hearing the name “Ali Baba”. The investigation to hunt him down was long underway before they realised that this was just a common Iraqi word to describe all thieves.

For all the money and technology, sometimes the data collection isn’t that brilliant. One leaked memo said, “In one recent case, a US official provided NSA with 200 phone numbers to 35 world leaders.” 

In truth, 157 of those numbers were already available to the public. The 43 remaining and some others were “tasked,” according to the memo, but produced “little reportable intelligence.” There also aren’t many rules.

The British spooks’ charter specifically empowers it to do whatever is necessary to ensure the commercial wellbeing of the United Kingdom. As Sir Percy Cradock, former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, put it, “We are a trading nation. We are therefore profoundly interested in international stability. 

“We need to know where the water is going to be stormy.” Cold War spying was supposedly ideological. But in the harsh world of international business competition, every country is a potential enemy. A recent FBI report identified 57 countries around the world that were running economic and commercial espionage operations against the US. 


At least half of those were rated by the State Department as being “friendly”. 

For its part, the CIA provides the relevant American departments with French and British negotiating positions at international meetings such as GATT, positions that the NSA has established by eavesdropping on British communications.

Former British spies have recounted being given shopping lists of commercial information to get. British spies helped sift 180 million files hacked from Google and Yahoo in December last year alone. 

The British Joint Intelligence Committee sends the Bank of England a weekly assessment of the world economic and trading situation. Usually intelligence splits into two parts. There is the intelligence gathering by spies or by signals intelligence. And there is the analysis side.

At each point there is both the possibility of inaccuracies, frauds or exaggeration. So in the run-up to the Iraq war there was rubbish information and rubbish analysis. Politicians went on to make this worse.

Karl Marx described the capitalist class as a band of “hostile brothers”. Corporations and states share information. States then share information with each other. At the same time the same corporations and states spy on each other. 

The competition at the heart of the system makes accumulating an edge of knowledge paramount. It also means that any opposition to the corporations or states will be spied on as well.

Leaked US National Security Agency slide showing some of its listening posts

Leaked US National Security Agency slide showing some of its listening posts

Spying agencies put their own interests first

The intelligence agencies are dangerous but incompetent. Phillip Knightley wrote The Second Oldest Profession, a history of intelligence.

He told Socialist Worker, “They failed to predict the Czech Revolution, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the end of the Cold War. But they also have lots of systems to cover up their failures. 

“When they fail to predict something they say, ‘We did warn you but you failed to take notice.’ Or they ask for ever yet more resources.”

He pointed out in the 1980s that US intelligence, “now produces so much information, such an all-sources glut of words, images and electronic data that the number of intelligence officers who can understand it all, who see the overall pictures, is rapidly declining”.

He wrote, “All the intelligence services need a monster of some sort. When the Cold War ended it looked like the monster had gone.


“Just when it looked like we had rumbled them, they perpetrated on us probably the greatest political confidence trick of the century—they were saved by this new monster of terrorism.

“They have brainwashed successive governments into accepting three propositions that ensure their survival and expansion.” First, that “in the secret world it may be impossible to distinguish success from failure”. 

Second, “that failure can be due to incorrect analysis of the agency’s accurate information—the warning was there but the government failed to heed it”. Third, “that the agency could have offered timely warning had it not been starved of funds.”

He wrote, “The intelligence community hates the government of the day, of whichever party. It juggles our destinies in the name of protecting them. And it’s able to do so because of the secrecy with which it surrounds itself, a secrecy which corrodes a democratic society. 

“It is no accident that as intelligence agencies have expanded, our civil liberties have contracted.” 

The ‘noble cause’ of torture and murder by drone

Even when the spies are successful it’s not a good thing. According to the Washington Post, “In the search for targets, the NSA has draped a surveillance blanket over dozens of square miles of north west Pakistan. 

“In Hassan Ghul’s case, the agency deployed an arsenal of cyber-espionage tools, secretly seizing control of laptops, siphoning audio files and other messages.”

Ghul was an Al Qaida operative who was once in American custody but was released. He had been tortured both before and after giving information that may have led to the raid on Osama bin Laden. 

An email seen by the NSA spooks led them to Ghul. They killed the man they had tortured with a drone strike.

“Ours is a noble cause,” NSA Director Keith B Alexander said during a public event last month. Our job is to defend this nation and to protect our civil liberties and privacy.”

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