Deniability

I thought that the furore concerning the NSA’s bugging of Chancellor Merkel’s mobile phone would soon die down. It is a basic truth that intelligence services spy on their nation’s allies. I took part in a round table discussion on BBC Radio Four recently together with former officers from all the allied services and also the Russian FSB. We all agreed that intelligence operations were regularly conducted against allies, usually, but not always, on the economic target. As one of the speakers commented: “Where there is a large contract involving thousands of jobs to be won, you have no allies.” (I paraphrase). A reasonable estimate is that about ten per cent of a nation’s intelligence effort is expended against allied states. So because everybody does it, one could reasonably expect a few days excitement in the press and then the matter would be quickly forgotten.

However, the NSA appears to be caught in something of a perfect storm. Mass surveillance is abhorrent in Germany where so many citizens were subject to the oversight of the Stasi and Merkel has been content to let this subject run because she thinks she is on to a vote winner. This is compounded by the fact that the French government (and with perhaps less impact, the Brazilian and Spanish) has risen to defend the liberty of its own citizens. This creates a powerful alliance of European interests which the USA is finding hard to simply dismiss.

But now the Americans have stumbled into a further crisis: following a story in the German newspaper Bild that Obama had been personally briefed on the operation to bug Chancellor Merkel, on the 27th October the NSA denied that he had ever known about the operation. Unfortunately for them this creates somewhat of a dilemma: either the President is lying or the NSA and its overseers are failing to inform the President of the extent of its operations even when it is targeting the leaders of allied governments. Either possibility creates a scandal so what is the likely answer?

Every intelligence operation has to pass a threshold of deniability before it is approved. This means that even if secret operatives are caught red handed, the politicians will be able to deny that they knew anything about it. The idea behind this is that at worst a few intelligence officers may lose their jobs but ultimately the government will be protected. And for those in the UK who think that the British government does not lie (are there any such left?), consider that at the very creation of the British Secret Service Bureau in 1909, Mansfield Cumming and Vernon Kell (the first two officers recruited who subsequently became the heads of MI5 and MI6), were told that in the event of their operations becoming public the government would deny all knowledge of their existence. The sub-committee recommending the formation of the service noted that it should be: “impossible to obtain direct evidence that we had any dealings with them at all.” (K. Jeffery, SIS Official History, p.7). That principle has continued ever since, not only in the UK but for all secret services.

It seems most likely that deniability provides the answer to the NSA question as well. The President was almost certainly aware of the bugging operation, but if the row continues and heads have to be offered up to save the President from embarrassment, then certain officials at the NSA will fall on their swords. That is what is expected of them. The truth will, of course, remain a secret.

The interesting question is: why can the citizens of democratic states not be told the truth in such matters?

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