Keep your eyes on those spies

Russell Wangersky
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Monday morning, and the spying news just kept coming. Fresh on the heels of last week’s details surrounding the interception of millions of French telephone calls by the U.S. National Security Administration (NSA) and the bugging of German leader Angela Merkel’s mobile phone since 2002, the world woke up to even more details of the NSA’s actions, courtesy of Super-leaker Edward Snowden.

This time, it was Spain and Japan. Details in the Spanish newspaper El Mundo outline the NSA’s bugging of 60 million phone calls in Spain in a single month, while a Japanese news agency is reporting that the same agency asked the Japanese government to help it tap into fibre-optic cables travelling through Japan in an effort to tap communications in the Asia-Pacific region.

But all of that is just more of the same: the simple fact is that the NSA, along with its counterparts in the so-called “Five Eyes” nations (which includes Communications Security Establishment Canada, along with spy agencies in Britain, Australia and New Zealand), seem to have been vacuuming whatever information they are technologically able to reach, and they’ve been able to reach plenty.

There doesn’t seem to be any ethical limit about what they’ll harvest. As Glenn Greenwald, a British journalist who’s receiving much of the Snowden material, described it in The Guardian, the spying includes “spying on conferences designed to negotiate economic agreements, the Organization of American States, oil companies, ministries that oversee mines and energy resources, the democratically elected leaders of allied states and entire populations in those states.”

It’s a handful.

But Greenwald reported on something else that’s equally frightening on the weekend: the head of the NSA, Gen. Keith Alexander, apparently is willing to set aside the American constitution to make sure spying goes on out of sight of the public.

Stop and think for a moment about this comment from Alexander, given in an interview with the U.S. Defence Department’s Armed With Science blog.

“I think it’s wrong that newspaper reporters have all these documents, the 50,000 — whatever they have and are selling them and giving them out as if these — you know it just doesn’t make sense. … We ought to come up with a way of stopping it. I don’t know how to do that. That’s more of the courts and the policy-makers but, from my perspective, it’s wrong to allow this to go on.”

There are fundamental issues involved here, and they’re worth thinking about: after all, in the United States at least, a free press is a constitutionally guaranteed right under the First Amendment. It’s spelled out pretty simply: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Not so in this country, where we appear to have been eager partners with the Americans in their eavesdropping proclivities, right down to helping them monitor the BlackBerrys of foreign leaders.

Here, there is no enshrined protection of a free press (although the Supreme Court of Canada has gradually interpreted some laws as providing explicit protections). Problem is, that’s about it.

And how seriously does our government take the whole thing? Well, consider this thought from question period in the Senate last week: senators asked 13 consecutive questions about Communications Security Establishment Canada’s role in the spying scandal. Government House Leader Claude Carignan answered every one   starting with the word, “Listen,” followed by blanket statements that the CSEC is following the law and has independent oversight. Full stop.

Why all the “listens”? Pressed about it, the senator said, “I have to keep saying the word ‘listen’ because you keep coming back with the same questions, which means I have to give you the same answers.”

So it’s an international crisis, given all the dignity of an absolutely childish and grade-school response.

It’s hardly trivial when any means are justified by questionable ends.

Dangerous times, indeed.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: NSA, Communications Security Establishment Canada, El Mundo Organization of American States U.S. Defence Congress Supreme Court of Canada

Geographic location: Spain, Japan, Asia-Pacific Britain Australia and New Zealand United States Government House

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