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Why did Britain spy on the Turkish Finance Minister?

Image by World Economic Forum
Image by World Economic Forum

The surveillance scandal rumbles on. Following last week’s dramatic revelations about the scale of National Security Agency surveillance, media attention has now turned to Britain’s GCHQ. The Guardian has published more highly revealing documents about the role of Britain’s covert signals intelligence and eavesdropping service.

These are astonishing in so far as they detail current operations and interests. They are not, however, altogether surprising.

Intelligence arouses much controversy. It is also widely misunderstood by the public, and debate should be underpinned by rigorous research. Today’s revelations about economic espionage are a case in point.

Documents obtained by The Guardian reveal that GCHQ bugged the Turkish finance minister in September 2009 ahead of a G20 finance ministers’ meeting in London. This had nothing to do with national security. Instead, the apparent aim involved gaining advantage in forthcoming negotiations. It appears that GCHQ sought to ascertain Turkish views on financial reform.

Two important points arise from this revelation.

The first is that GCHQ, along with MI6, are well within their rights to target the economic sphere. Both are legally allowed to act ‘in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom’. Indeed, the head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, has spoken of his agency’s responsibility for tracking economic (as well as military) power in other countries and finding out what they are going to do with it.

Secondly, the vast majority of economic intelligence is gathered through overt sources. These include the press, published statistics, information from international organizations, academic contacts, and departmental libraries.

The core question then is: when does the UK engage in covert economic espionage? Where does this add value to the open information?

Analysis of declassified archives reveals 5 areas.

1.       Negotiations

As the recent revelations demonstrate, secret intelligence is used to aid negotiation techniques. It has long been useful in determining the positions and attitudes of other governments. Evidence from the 1960s reveals how the Foreign Office relied on top secret material from MI6 relating to ‘business or negotiations’ when dealing with countries behind the Iron Curtain. There is also evidence that Britain spied on the French during the EEC negotiations in the same decade. Policymakers sought intelligence on French negotiating tactics.

2.       Short term and tactical

The first category can be broadened out to tactical purposes more generally. Macro-economic trends and national economic strategy are forecast using open source information. By contrast, policymakers draw upon covert sources regarding short term, tactical, or current economic issues. Economic intelligence was traditionally most valuable in times of crisis.

3.       Sanctions

Secret intelligence is vital in monitoring the progress of sanctions. It allows policymakers to use economic measures to achieve broader security goals in the political or military fields. Documented examples include sanctions against Rhodesia, which were monitored by both GCHQ and MI6, as well as attempts to prevent dual-use technologies from being sold to the Soviet Union. Again, GCHQ played an important role. As recently as 2007 the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs explicitly stated that ‘the effectiveness [of sanctions] depends on the quality of intelligence and the identification of front organisations and collaborators.’

4.       Estimating the economic potential of countries which do not disclose such data

Secret intelligence was employed when overt information was simply unavailable, thereby allowing intelligence agencies to use their unique collection capabilities to provide decision makers with information unavailable through other means. This was more prominent during the Cold War, when communist countries did not publish their economic information in full. Once more it fell to GCHQ and MI6 to send detailed information to inform the Foreign Office’s background work.

5.       Sensitive issues

Secret intelligence has traditionally proved valuable to policymakers regarding sensitive issues. The arms trade forms a good example and GCHQ has experience in monitoring Western arms traffic. Similarly, policymakers rely on secret intelligence to understand resource security. GCHQ material was once described as ‘the only source’ on issues such as gold and diamonds.

It is important to note that such covert intelligence is outnumbered by overt information. It is therefore the role of government analysts to integrate the two. This is not an easy task.

The above examples are informed by historical research. Given the inherent secrecy involved, it is difficult to offer more recent evidence-based discussion. This is why the Guardian revelations are so interesting.

However, the revelations that GCHQ spied on the Turkish Finance Minister in 2009 are not surprising. Secret intelligence has long been used to enhance the economic well-being of the United Kingdom.

Dr Rory Cormac

For more information on economic espionage, see Dr Cormac’s recent article: ‘Secret Intelligence and Economic Security: The Exploitation of a Critical Asset in an Increasingly Prominent Sphere‘. Follow Rory on twitter: @RoryCormac

Published inIntelligence

One Comment

  1. Anthony Demetriou Anthony Demetriou

    How disappointing that this post asserts that this sort of spying is ok because it is legal. MI6 may have been ‘well within their rights’ to spy on Turkish delegates, but that does not mean that the legislation establishing those ‘rights’ is acceptable in an allegedly liberal democracy.

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