Back in 1998, I wrote a lengthy investigative feature for The Financial Post about Canada’s signals intelligence agency, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), and its post-Cold War role. You can read it here:
The CSE and its sister signals intelligence agency in the US, the National Security Agency (NSA), engage in espionage using solely electronic means. To this end, these agencies have built a vast network of supercomputers, satellites and datalinks to capture as much of the world’s traffic in phone, Internet and other electronic communication. The computers can search for particular words and voices, allowing these agencies to target individuals and institutions without ever leaving the confines of Ottawa or Fort George G. Meade, Maryland (where the NSA headquarters is located)
Moreover, signals intelligence agencies garner far more money than their counterparts in traditional intelligences agencies such as CSIS or the CIA.
The revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden on the extent of the NSA’s reach and its ability to spy on Americans and citizens and political leaders of foreign countries, begs a big question: why are they doing all of this espionage?
During the Cold War, signals intelligence agencies focused mostly on the Soviet Union and its satellites and allies. But with the collapse of the Soviet bloc, these agencies needed a new raison d’etre. In my 1998 Financial Post piece, I detailed how these agencies were now focusing on economic targets, such as spying on countries to glean information that would give them an advantage in trade talks, or allow multinationals to garner business deals to the detriment of their foreign competitors. “We were all looking at other ways of earning our living other than military and political intelligence,” Mike Frost, a former CSE operative who spent 18 years with the agency, told me when I was researching the Post story. “It was just a given we would be looking at economic things. We thought there was nothing wrong with this.”
For example, the CSE spied on South Korea while Canada was attempting to sell $6 billion worth of CANDU nuclear reactors to that country (presumably to ensure the deal went through). And it spied on Mexico during the 1992-93 NAFTA talks, again to garner advantages in those discussions.
In the current scandal over the NSA, it’s clear that the real intention of the agency’s spying on America’s so-called allies like Germany, Brazil, France and Spain, is solely for economic purposes. After all, these are not countries that are hotbeds of Islamic or al Qaeda terrorism that would justify this level of espionage.
Indeed, former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald (who has broken most of the stories based on the Snowden material) has said it’s clear the NSA’s real purpose is economic espionage: “If you reveal to populations around the world that their calls are being spied on by the millions, they’ll first wonder, ‘Why are my calls of interest to the U.S. government?’,” Greenwald said on the TV show Democracy Now recently. “But when it becomes apparent that the United States government is doing this for economic advantage, they start to feel personally implicated, like they’re being actually robbed.” Greenwald has discovered clear cases where the NSA has done just that: for instance, the NSA had targeted Brazil’s state majority owned oil company, Petrobras, along with other “energy companies, financial programs and airlines”, as well as the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy, which just happens to oversee the industry in Brazil in which Canadian companies have the greatest interest.
Greenwald has cited “extreme levels of surveillance” directed at Central and Latin American economic conferences and has accused the U.S. government of the very same type of industrial espionage it repeatedly lays at the doorstep of the Chinese government.
You can read here, on something called “Washington’s Blog”, a list of stories showing the acts of economic espionage carried out by the NSA in countries like France, Brazil, Mexico, Germany and China:
Ultimately, even during the Cold War, the purpose of Western intelligence agencies was to further the economic ambitions of their governments. Former CIA agent Philip Agee quit the agency in the late ‘60s after he realized his work in the developing world only benefited American multinationals (the 1973 CIA-engineered coup of Chile is a great example of this).
Today, intelligence agencies can pretend that all of their spying is to hunt down “terrorists” in our midst. In reality, their entire function is to further the interests of capital, even if it means trampling our privacy and civil rights in the process.
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