Intelligence cooperation or liaison, as it is called, is not a game for the novice or the uninitiated. Only a select few in an intelligence organisation are normally allowed to handle the arrangements, that too, after having worked in the system for years. Intelligence cooperation goes beyond mere exchange of information. It can include help to upgrade abilities and facilities in each other’s countries. It is a vital and safe channel of communication, even in the absence of diplomatic relations or near rupture in the same. In today’s world, intelligence liaison has become fair game for all. Spying on friends is not taboo in this game and the best time to make inroads is when relations are warm and comfortable.
Heads of government have quite often used their intelligence chiefs to convey sensitive messages to their counterparts or maintain contact with each other, especially when, in the absence of formal relations, there was need for political deniability. Effective intelligence is also a by-product of sound relationship and trust between the intelligence chief and the chief executive of a country.
Intelligence cooperation need not only be a bilateral arrangement. Immediately after the end of World War II, the English-speaking victors of the war — the US, Canada, Britain, Australia and Canada — got together to exchange information about the common threat, which was the Soviet Union at that time. Communications intelligence was exchanged by these countries. At times, this intelligence was extended to uncomfortable political opponents who could not be covered by agencies because of domestic laws that prohibited such espionage. In the Eighties, the exchange evolved into Project Echelon, which graduated from exchanging processed intelligence to ‘raw’ intercepts. Echelon monitors about 120 satellites all over the world and includes non-military communications of governments, business houses, private establishments and individuals.
When stories about the Echelon leaked — that one section of the allies was snooping on the other — the French and Germans were livid. There was uproar in the European Parliament and the US and British were accused of “State-sponsored information piracy”. There were suspicions, even accusations, that the US used this system to advise its negotiators in trade talks with Japan. On other occasions, it was apparently used to help Boeing beat Airbus in the deal with Saudi Arabia and to clinch the Enron deal with India, beating the British bid this time.
The volume of traffic intercepts is indeed huge; the volume of international telephone traffic, including that from cellphones, is now estimated to be approximately 200 billion seconds a year. Any communication sent into space is susceptible to monitoring. Thus, there exists the need for massive downstream activity to process this. Reliance on key words and voice recognition has its problems; the former can cause communications traffic jams and the latter is not completely reliable.
In addition, reconnaissance satellites — ‘vacuum cleaners’ that sweep in everything and take high resolution photographs — are used to keep the globe under watch. These can detect nuclear blasts, warn of missile launches and record the telemetry of missile flights. Bases located at varied points all over the world help download this data. It could, perhaps, be comforting that one lives in such a stratospheric cocoon. On the other hand, it could be highly disconcerting to realise that we live in Orwell’s world.
The CIA and KGB maintained contacts with each other even when the Cold War temperatures were near freezing. At about the same time in the Eighties, the US had two listening posts in Qitai and Korla in the Xinjiang province to listen into Soviet Russia. The Germans also had an intelligence relationship with the Chinese service at least as far back as in the Eighties. French intelligence chief, Alexandre de Meranches, founder of the secretive Safari Club that included other friendly and trusted intelligence agencies, had foreseen Soviet intrusion into Afghanistan and had advised the newly-elected Ronald Reagan to prepare for a counter-offensive in Afghanistan.
Apart from the obvious influence mechanisms, the Western power elite functions in many secretive ways. In one of his earlier novels, Robert Ludlum had four powerful international individuals as the secret controllers of the world. It did not seem real then, as Ludlum’s multi-talented, covert cold warriors fought ruthless wars against enemies of the free world. But Ludlum obviously based some of his novels on the realities of the day and his fantasies were more real than those of General Musharraf.
There are other influential secret societies in the West, like the Bilderberg Group formed in 1954 by a small group of rich and powerful trans-Atlantic individuals to help keep Europe allied to the US and communism at bay. This group (named after the hotel in Arnhem, in the Netherlands, where they first met) remains an exclusive and secretive group that includes politicians, financiers, media moguls and the corporate world. The group allows no reporters, there is only an answering machine and no minutes are issued. This leads to various interpretations about its role. For instance, the Serbs blamed Bilderberg for the war that led to the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic.
Another secret society with a number of former intelligence officers as members is Pinay Circle (earlier known as the Cercle Violet). It is believed to be a secret Right-wing transnational intelligence and direct action group used to fight communism. The Circle is said to be mainly in the business of regime change in the West to keep the US and Europe close to each other. The group continues to exist although communism is no longer the threat it was. Its members have included Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller, Zbigniew Brzezinski, (all three associated with the Bilderberg Group), George Soros, Paul Volcker, Turki Al-Faisal, former CIA chief William Colby, among other US, British and German intelligence officers. Nadhmi Auchi, a one-time Saddam Hussein confidante, was also a member of this secret group. British luminaries have included Lord Julian Amery and James Goldsmith. The Circle is also linked to other influential groups like the Heritage Foundation and Opus Dei, often through its members.
There were allegations that in the Seventies, the group helped in the downfall of British premiers Harold Wilson and Ted Heath, Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and France’s President, Francois Mitterrand. Beneficiaries included Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
Like any other system, intelligence functions best in a certain milieu. Many world powers have treated their intelligence services as an important sword-arm to provide internal security and to secure foreign policy objectives.
When the Mossad was hunting for the Black September terrorists in the Seventies, one of the agents had to masquerade as a woman. This agent was Ehud Barak, who later became the Israeli Prime Minister. Many others who headed their countries’ intelligence services switched to overt governance with ease and distinction. Bush Sr in the US was one; Andropov, Primakov and Putin in Russia; Kang Sheng and Chiao Shi in China were members of the Politburo; Hosni Mubarak looked after the Egyptian Intelligence during Sadat’s presidency.
In a world of globalised terror, economics and competition, the traditional threats to the developed world have changed. Democracy and its preservation is serious business, extending beyond the tinsel and glamour of the screen and the rhetoric at election rallies. The system of global surveillance with and against friends will remain, with all levers of control lying with the rich and powerful.
Vikram Sood is former Secretary, Research & Analysis Wing