It was a good take off from “Yes We Can” from Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, by the headline in a German publication to mark Barack Obama’s visit to Germany this week. The complete text was – “Yes We Scan” – with an image of Obama with earphones on listening into the sub-text that read: “United we can progress towards a perfectly monitored society”. The lampooning and lambasting of the Barack Obama and David Cameron duo caught in the coils of spying on citizens and foreign guests could not be missed anywhere on the Internet, although the mainstream Western media was playing down the scandals.
It is interesting to know why rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Transparency International et al that are so loud when it comes to issues of transparency and accountability, as well as privacy and human rights in this part of the world, have played a very low key in all of this.
Is it possible that they are all busy trying to hunt for unsubstantiated material on inhospitable diplomacy of the UK, for a Channel 4 on the “Fire that Is” in Western disrespect for hospitality and the courtesies of diplomacy?
There is no end to the countries of the West, especially the UK and USA, preaching to the world about human rights, transparency and accountability. They give the impression of being paragons of virtue on matters of international relations, projecting their systems of governance as what should be emulated by all others who can claim to be democratic or share the values of the West.
We see today an outrageous display of the lack of basic hospitality to one’s own invitees to these countries, lacking in the courtesy and decorum of good diplomatic relations. After the shocking exposure of the extent of cyber snooping done by the United States revealed in the past two weeks, we now have the even worse exposure of the UK – just as David Cameron began receiving the leaders of the G8 nations for their summit, hosted by the UK in Northern Ireland.
It is now revealed without any contradiction, or even an attempt at explanation (which would be futile), that the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) intercepted and spied on communications of foreign participants at the G20 Summits held in the UK in 2009.
This shameless violation of the privacy of Heads of State, ministers and foreign delegates to an international conference of the highest ranking held in the UK, is a shocking revelation of the contemptible attitude of politicians and administrators in the “Mother of Parliaments”, the ready torch bearers for human rights, transparency, accountability, privacy and good diplomacy.
All such values and principles have been wholly negated by this shameless act of spying on one’s own guests, passing on some of the information obtained to the US – the ally with the closest relationship with the UK, causing much more than ripples of concern in the world.
The whole exercise in the horrific invasion of privacy has upended the civilized values that the West claims to stand for, and calls for a serious look at the value systems that drive the West today, in the holier than though attitudes towards Islamic and other political forms found in the world. It is as bad as the shock of drones that kill civilians in the hunt for terrorists, and certainly worse than how the US has been eavesdropping and collecting information from the telephone, radio and Internet communications of all of its citizens, and those of other countries too, in a so-called operation to protect the US from terrorist attacks.
Not surprisingly, Russia, Turkey and South Africa have openly expressed outrage over revelations that both Britain and the United States spied on foreign delegates at the G20 meetings in London in 2009.
“Scandalous” - Turkey
The foreign ministry in Ankara said it was unacceptable that the British government had intercepted phone calls and monitored the computers of Turkey's finance minister as well as up to 15 others from his visiting delegation. If confirmed, the eavesdropping operation on a NATO ally was "scandalous", it said.
The ministry summoned the UK's ambassador to Ankara to hear Turkey's furious reaction in person.
A spokesman at the foreign ministry read out an official statement saying: "The allegations in the Guardian are very worrying … If these allegations are true, this is going to be scandalous for the UK. At a time when international co-operation depends on mutual trust, respect and transparency, such behaviour by an allied country is unacceptable."
The Guardian revealed that the UK’s GCHQ targeted Mehmet Simsek, the Turkish finance minister and a former Merrill banker, during a G20 economics meeting hosted in London in September 2009. It also considered monitoring the communications of 15 named members of his staff and of Turkey's central bank. The goal was to collect information about the Turkish position on the reform of the global financial infrastructure in the wake of the world banking crisis.
“Deepened mistrust” - Moscow
In Moscow Russian officials said the Guardian report that US spies had intercepted top-secret communications of (President) Dmitry Medvedev at a G20 summit in London in April 2009 would further harm the struggling US-Russia relationship and cast a shadow over the G8 summit in Northern Ireland, earlier this week.
Details of the spying, set out in a briefing prepared by the National Security Agency (NSA), revealed by the Guardian late on Sunday, show that US spies based in Britain spied on Medvedev, then the Russian president and now prime minister.
Senior Russian officials said the revelations had deepened mistrust between the US and Russia, whose relations have already sunk to a post-cold-war low following a brief and largely unsuccessful "reset" during Medvedev's four-year reign in the Kremlin.
Igor Morozov, a senator in Russia's Federation Council, the upper house of Parliament, suggested that the Obama administration's attempts to improve relations were clearly insincere: "2009 was the year the Russian-American 'reset' was announced. At the same time US special services were listening to Dmitry Medvedev's phone calls."
He added: "In this situation, how can we trust today's announcements by Barack Obama that he wants a new 'reset'? Won't the US special services now start spying on Vladimir Putin, rather than correcting their actions?" he told RIA-Novosti, a state-owned news agency. "This isn't just an act of inhospitality, but a fact that can seriously complicate international relations," he said. "Big doubts about Obama's sincerity appear."
The Guardian reports that South African computers were also singled out for special attention, in this ugly swoop in visiting delegates, prompted Pretoria to warn against the abuse of privacy and "basic human rights". "We have solid, strong and cordial relations with the United Kingdom and would call on their government to investigate this matter fully with a view to take strong and visible action against any perpetrators," the South African foreign ministry said.
The steps the GCHQ took to spy on the guests of the UK, including its fellow members in the European Union and NATO, were bizarre. They go far beyond the stuff of whimsical espionage writers. It is now revealed that delegates to the G20s were allegedly tricked into using specially prepared Internet cafes which allowed British spies to intercept and monitor email messages and phone calls through BlackBerry devices. GCHQ was also able to track when delegates were contacting each other and targeted certain officials of their choice, and visiting ministers.
The fact that this dismal exercise in spying “diplomacy” took place during the previous Labour government, under Prime Minister Gordon Brown, does not reduce the opprobrium this has brought to the UK.
Prime Minister David Cameron has little choice but to state, as he does, that he would not comment on intelligence matters, but the revelations are undoubtedly most embarrassing as he hosts the G8 Summit, with this adding to the difficulties in winning over President Vladimir Putin to the Obama-led Western line of arming the Syrian rebels – that admittedly include those who are closely linked to al-Qaeda – the focus in the “War on Terror” by President Obama and most other Western states.
The Western media were also caught up in these exposures, with little choice but to report what was being revealed, mainly by the Guardian, or be left out of the picture.
The Guardian gave more to readers with an Internet interview with whistleblower Snowden, while the South China Morning Post also gave him an opportunity to make his case for the scathing revelations for which he has been named a traitor by Dick Cheney. Snowden claims it an honour to be so named by such a manipulator of the truth to US citizens.
Yet, it did not take long for the key names in Western media such as BBC, CNN, Fox and MSNBC to try and subdue the impact of all this by using commentators and analysts to say what a normal and necessary practice surveillance of communications is, and trying to play down the aspect of damaged good relations and the very scandalous nature of the absence of standards of civilized hospitality that all of this revealed.
Both Obama and David Cameron were trying hard to maintain the best face amidst the huge embarrassments caused by these revelations of contemptible spying, which was not made any easy by the sudden discovery by Obama that President Assad of Syria had crossed the “red line” of the West’s own making, through alleged proof of the use of chemical weapons. Once again the Western media made themselves readily available to spread the message of Assad crossing the “red line” and to justify arming the Syrian rebels, including admitted an avowed al-Qaeda groups.
It did not need much effort to recall how close this call of “poison gas” was to the open lying to the entire world by then US President George W Bush and UK Premier Tony Blair about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction, based on wholly flawed intelligence reports, to justify the invasion and regime change in Iraq, a decade ago. The Syrian issue is not one that has an easy solution, but it is clear that the West has no solution to offer to the Syrian people, trapped in a bloody power struggle to define the new realities of the Middle East.
Although there may be disagreements with the continued Russian support for Damascus, (not forgetting that Syria is on its border), President Putin thought it necessary to call Obama’s new intelligence about poison gas as not convincing. He made a stronger statement in a the media conference with David Cameron, who was pressing for arms to the Syrian rebels, in asking whether the West wanted to arm those who pulled out and ate with relish the innards of those killed in battle. It was a reference to the viral image of Syrian rebels tearing out the heart of a dead Syrian soldier and biting into it.
Learn from us
All of this calls for a good evaluation of Western policy vis-a-vis terrorism and the much touted claims to be defenders of human rights, transparency, accountability and diplomacy. This reminds us of how the same countries, especially the UK, although having banned the LTTE as a terrorist organization, was trying hard to pressure Sri Lanka for an end to the operations to defeat in 2008/09, knowing very well the nature of the LTTE and its total commitment to terror. It was Gordon Brown’s Foreign Secretary, David Miliband who as among the strongest and loudest in making these demands, that are still echoed by those who draw a thick veil over LTTE terror.
The past two weeks have shown the difficulty in having good relations with honesty and a unity of civilized purpose with governments that have no regard for the decencies of civilized life. Those who lack the courtesies of diplomacy cannot be expected to do much to genuinely defend the cause of transparency and accountability. In fact they have now been exposed for their total lack of transparency and accountability - the loudest charges against Sri Lanka - in both national interstate matters. It seems time for them to learn the practice of good hospitality from the East. Sri Lanka certainly has much to teach both Barack Obama and David Cameron about friendship and hospitality.