By Raffique Shah
December 05, 2010
“Virtually all countries of the world…have secret CIA tracking stations.”
—Intelligence expert and author Alexander Kolpakidi (Daily Mail, November 15, 2010).
THE scandal—allegations that US agents spied in (and on) sovereign states, allies like Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Iceland—broke around the same time the SIA mess hit the fan here in Trinidad and Tobago. American agents conducted surveillance activities against “suspected terrorists” on foreign soil. They did not inform the host countries of what they were doing, which included monitoring, photographing and filming people around their embassies and others taking part in protest rallies.
This “spy” scandal erupted weeks before Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks released hundreds of classified diplomatic communications between the US State Department and its embassies across the world. Many of them contained mundane titbits. Others, however, proved to be very embarrassing to the USA. One example was Hillary Clinton’s request for a report on Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner’s “mental health”. Clinton also ordered agents to spy on UN diplomats, including Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and members of the Security Council.
Le Monde, a reputable French newspaper, reported that Clinton’s memo detailed the kind of information the State Department was interested in: Internet passwords, credit card numbers, fingerprints, and DNA and iris scans of those targeted. Der Spiegel (German newspaper) reported, “The cables portrayed Chancellor Angela Merkel in unflattering terms.” There were many more memos and reports, including scores from Port of Spain, which, thus far, have not been spelt out.
The reason I return to this topic today is to show that while the Interception Act, passed by both Houses of Parliament recently, may help protect politicians and ordinary citizens from eavesdropping by local SIA agents, the law cannot protect us from CIA spying. Indeed, it’s not just CIA agents or informants who intercept telephonic and cyber-communications, but a host of other individuals and agencies.
As the intelligence expert quoted above said, this kind of activity is universal in nature, and it’s not new. What has changed over the years is the sophistication of equipment and devices used for eavesdropping or spying.
One’s BlackBerry or pen or laptop computer can be feeding information directly to centres located mainly in America, but not restricted to that country, that monitor, around the clock, what targeted persons say or do.
I always assume every conversation I have on my telephone is monitored somewhere in the world. Time was when I would start my discussion with a few expletives—for the listening discomfort of whoever was eavesdropping. I have few, if any, secrets, so I open up freely when I talk with others. As Trinis would say, I have no cocoa in the sun…
People in public life though, especially active politicians, should be wary of what secrets they hold and who is monitoring their activities. In doing research for the book on the 1970 mutiny that I am writing, I accessed some declassified State Department and US Embassy telegrams that are relevant to that period. They are intriguing, to say the least.
I shall not reveal much here (hell, how else would I sell my book?), but suffice it to say the British, American and Venezuelan governments’ interest in those events, and in the principal players, was fascinating. The Americans were interested not only in the leaders of the mutiny, but very much in the mind-frame of the then PM, Dr Eric Williams. There are several references to his mental state at different points in that dramatic period of our country’s history.
They also met with, and analysed, Bhadase Maharaj, a secret ally of Williams. In both men’s cases, there were unflattering remarks in the ambassador’s telegrams. One eminent local medical doctor gave his assessment of the PM’s health, especially his mental state. In Bhadase’s case, the ambassador alluded to the burly politician’s drug abuse.
From an intelligence standpoint, because Teteron was isolated, hence out of reach, their reports were woefully flawed. But right or wrong, justified or naked intrusion, the US Government, through its many agencies, continues to spy on all politicians, especially those in power, and on persons they suspect may have harmful intentions towards America.
In the latter category, many innocent persons across the world, more so Muslims or those who bear Islamic names, have fallen victim to gross incompetence on the part of their spies or agents. It is a fact that lots of “terrorists” detained at Guantanamo and elsewhere are persons guilty of nothing more than the names they bear, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Our Prime Minister and her Cabinet ministers, most of whom are unaware of how intelligence is gathered and used, should take little comfort in the passage into law of the Interception of Communications Act. The Devil, it is said, finds work for idle hands. Intelligence gathering can be a boring exercise. It is very tempting for idle minds to tune in to the conversations of persons in high society, or on those they expect to engage in juicy gossip.
The best advice I can give those holding public office is that they always conduct themselves properly. In today’s world, one does not expect people, more so politicians, to be perfect moral exemplars.
However, if you choose to pontificate to plebes, make sure your private life can withstand scrutiny. If SIA officials are not “maccoing” you, rest assured Big Brother or Big Sister is. Hillary Clinton is a powerfully “maccocious” woman.