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Snowden and state surveillance in Spain

Like most Europeans, Spaniards were shocked by revelations of extensive US spying on European citizens. Yet, there has been little or no public debate on state surveillance in Spain since then. Why not? (from our new Joining the dots series)

Flickr/Alexandra Crosby. Some rights reserved.Flickr/Alexandra Crosby. Some rights reserved.

Flickr/Alexandra Crosby. Some rights reserved.Flickr/Alexandra Crosby. Some rights reserved.

Spain has lost so much weight on the world stage that its leaders do not even deserve to be spied on. With a very typical Spanish mix of irony and self-deprecation, the joke became popular when the scandal of the US surveillance of Angela Merkel and other European politicians emerged on the front pages of most media this autumn.

For weeks both public opinion and officials had followed closely the scope of the revelations of former NSA analyst Edward Snowden. Since last June, when The Guardian published its first report on the issue, the story had been growing as an uncomfortable snowball: the huge amount of data from anonymous individuals collected by the Agency; ambivalent collusion with giant technology corporations; the collaboration of different national intelligence services in providing those data to the US; and, finally, the espionage on political leaders all over the world, including those who were, supposedly, very close partners, like the German chancellor or the British Prime Minister. Because it is one of the old and basic rules of partnership, trust has been the main loser in this whole affair. 

For weeks Spaniards of all kinds had watched the issue from the sidelines (desde la barrera, according to a very Spanish bull-fighting metaphor). Spaniards, like others, were surprised and shocked by the sudden realization that Big Brother really existed. Yet, to all appearances it was as if they could hardly care less. In July, when Der Spiegel mentioned Spain in the list of countries that had been spied on by the US, an official from the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs met with the business attaché of the American Embassy to ask for explanations. End of story. This happened in the middle of a busy summer, with several other more urgent matters, and there was no ambassador to represent the US in Madrid: the newly appointed one would only arrive in September.

More revelations

Collective indignation grew in October when it was revealed that a massive amount of communications from Spanish citizens had also been tracked by the NSA. Indignation became confusion when the NSA director declared that national intelligence services from allied countries - Spain among them - had provided such information as part of their joint effort to guarantee common security. And among politicians, nervousness was mainly directed at wondering whether the Prime Minister’s phone had also been tapped.

A hearing of the director of the CNI (Centro Nacional de Inteligencia, the Spanish intelligence agency) by the Congress Secrets Committee helped to calm things down. General Sanz Roldán stated that Spain has always acted within the limits of law and affirmed to be sure, 99.9 percent, that neither PM Mariano Rajoy’s nor any other Spanish official's phone had been hacked.

He added that the exchanged information – more than 60 million communications, according to leaked documents - had not been collected in Spain from Spanish citizens, but in conflict zones such as Afghanistan or the Sahel. The CNI and the NSA have been collaborating in the fight against terrorism at least since the attacks on September 11. Representatives of all political parties declared themselves satisfied with the explanations. The fact that the leader of the opposition, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, was once Minister of the Interior - and therefore knows very well the functioning of the secret services - may also account for this relatively quiet political reaction.

The Spanish official reaction towards the United States was rather coy, too. At the Eurogroup meeting in October, European leaders were visibly upset. Many of them supported Franco-German criticism of what they considered was, in Angela Merkel’s words, “a totally unacceptable” practice. But Rajoy avoided any comment. Some European proposals to give a "strong response" arose – for example freezing the free trade agreement negotiations, or suspending the Safe Harbour process, which regulates data transfers for commercial purposes between the EU and the US. However, no decisive action was taken by the Union or by any member state. The truth is that Spanish leaders, like their counterparts in Europe, do not want to do anything that might endanger their country's relationship with the US at a moment when all efforts are focused on improving the damaged image of the country to attract foreign investment. The US is one the priorities of Spanish foreign policy, and Rajoy has been waiting to get an appointment to visit the White House for months.

What about public opinion?

Spanish public opinion also had other priorities. Despite signs of a slight economic recovery, more than 6 million people remain jobless and with no clear horizon in sight, while territorial and institutional disputes dominate the political debate. Corruption cases and trials mark the national mood – frustration dominates. Social protest has been mobilized by austerity measures and cuts in public health and education, not by revelations that the secret services are not so secret. The shadow of a permanent and all-reaching supervision is worrying indeed, but people feel it does not affect their immediate existence.

Of course, throughout all this time the NSA scandal has been a regular topic for talk-shows, commentators, analysts, and ordinary citizens. It has opened, reopened or fostered the debate about the limits of Internet access and privacy, about the blurred relationship between security and freedom, between openness and state-control. It has renewed the discussion on whether the fight against terrorism and other threats can justify almost anything. Many intellectuals have raised their voices to alert those who only saw the benefits of the Internet, to warn about the new ways to use power, to insist on the need to better regulate cyberspace.

Much was revealed these last months about the way the intelligence services work and exchange information. They have lost their glamour in the process. As in the Wikileaks case, the public debate seemed more concerned about how these agencies' secrets had been exposed rather than about the content of the revelations. As for Snowden, the character, in a country with an inevitable Quixotic tendency, he has been portrayed more like a hero than like a villain. The bizarre episode in which the plane of Bolivian president Evo Morales had to stop in Vienna on its way from Moscow to La Paz, after several countries - including Spain - refused to let it fly over their airspace because of suspicions that the NSA whistleblower was aboard, was very embarrassing for the Spanish government.

Did this (limited) public debate lead to concrete changes in policy? Hardly – but a few experts have pointed out the need to introduce channels to denounce bad practices by private or public actors, something that is virtually non-existent in Spain, and the suggestion is increasingly gaining support. Snowdengate may have thus contributed to the emergence of a very much needed change of mentality, although no real measure has been taken so far. It is too soon to assess what direct consequences the revelations will have. Secret services will undoubtedly discreetly reinforce their own control mechanisms and Americans will have to use their best talents to rebuild their allies’ trust. In informal conversations, Spanish politicians and diplomats confess that they leave their mobile phones outside the room when entering an important meeting... just in case.

There has been, however, an indirect consequence. Only a few days ago the Spanish government approved the Cyber-Security National Strategy, the first of its kind in Spain. Its main organ, the Cyber-Defense Committee, is formed by representatives of various centres and agencies, including the CNI, from different ministries. The fight for its presidency was partly marked by the NSA scandal: for some, putting the Spanish citizens’ Internet privacy under the protection of the secret service would amount to letting the wolf take care of the sheep. It was finally decided that there will be a yearly rotating presidency which will be covered by high officials from the ministries involved... starting with the director of the CNI.

In spite of the many important questions that the Snowden affair has raised, it looks like, for now, pragmatic self-interest will prevail both in Spain and in the rest of the world.


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