John Le Carré spent the early part of his career as a spy, an experience he draws heavily on in his novels, of which I am very fond. Spies then didn't belong to an “intelligence community”: at a time when social classes were considered the main constituents of society, communities in general were little spoken of. It is only after the end of the cold war and the triumph of Reaganism-Thacherism that social classes somehow got dissolved into the constellation of “communities”. So there followed ethnic communities, religious communities, sexual-orientation communities, professional communities, and in that context the powerful “intelligence community” emerged too.
Yet "intelligence" is a polysemic word: besides the activity of spying it also designates the capacity to think well. Today, decades after the retirement of Le Carré’s classic characters, the assumption that these two meanings go together may have become somewhat less convincing. Some would say that is because the demanding profession has been fragmented, partly privatised and outsourced, others because the tasks of eavesdropping and thinking have been separated.
Whatever the answer, if I were John Le Carré, which of course I am not, I would try to knit a little story around a famous passenger who never boarded a plane - the passenger being Edward Snowden and the plane being the presidential jet of Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of the “Plurinational Republic of Bolivia”. The political and economic fallouts of the sudden closure of the air-space of France, Spain and Portugal to President Morales on his return flight from Moscow, could yet be serious for the three countries concerned, all of which have made Latin America one of their foreign policy and foreign trade priorities. The outrage and indignation of Bolivians and other Latin Americans are understandable. They asked for clarifications: why did it happen and who gave the order to deviate the Bolivian president from his route, in violation of international air-traffic norms, in denial of the proclaimed friendly relations between these three countries and Bolivia, and in the offence delivered to Bolivia’s sovereignty? “Quien manda en Europa?” ("Who's the boss in Europe?"), exclaimed Evo Morales at a mass rally in La Paz.
The clarifications, to my knowledge, are still pending, and I suspect will remain so for some time. Was it just a mistake, as some European diplomats tried to persuade Bolivian counterparts? If so, it was quite a big one, a real blunder indeed. But if we go just a bit farther and ask ourselves the usual key question - who benefits? – we may imagine a story that will take us beyond the blunder: to something carefully planned and skilfully executed.
By whom? By the beneficiaries, of course!
A lesson for Europe
As Edward Snowden confirms, paranoiacs may finally prove to be right. Secret services have an eye on everything: on the economy, on scientific research, on technology, on our internet correspondence and our sexual lives. But, as John Le Carré systematically highlights in his novels, they also have a priority target. They have always been and still are exceptionally keen to know more about other secret services: their adversaries of course, but not only they…after all, you never know which friend may at some point cross the floor and become your adversary, do you?
This focus on fellow spies is understandable and consistent with the straightforward rationality of resource-allocation: the more I know about the plans and plots of the secret service of my adversary, the less will I need to disperse my own people along a broad range of targets I want to protect at home, or “infiltrate” abroad.
I believe that someone out there was very keen to check some details about the functioning of the European “intelligence community” and, in particular, of “transatlantic intelligence ties”. How does the system work? To what extent are these guys constrained by their countries’ laws? How do they balance priorities between (on the one hand) domestic political and legal constraints and (on the other) commitments undertaken in the framework of “transatlantic cooperation”? How does this translate into practice? When solicited by the “transatlantic partner”, do they act first and request domestic “political clearance” later, or is it the other way round? When was France's president, Francois Hollande, consulted - and was he consulted at all?
President Morales may never get the clarifications he requested, but those who set the trap did get some precious clues. A Spanish diplomat in Moscow reportedly declared that he had reliable information about Snowden’s presence in Evo Morales’s jet (as if this would have justified the closure of the European Union airspace to the Bolivian president!). I suspect the Spanish embassy in Moscow is now hurriedly reviewing its contact list and reclassifying entries.
Here is my hypothesis: what the Spaniards got as reliable information was most probably a piece of “leakage”, carefully organised by Snowden’s current custodians. It was indeed a handy opportunity for them to test the effectiveness of transatlantic intelligence cooperation. Nothing less could be expected from a service whose former member is today the country’s president. A proof (if any were needed) that the profession continues to be valued in Russia - and performing well. Thus, ironically, thanks to Vladimir Putin, we Europeans got a chance to learn something about the functioning of our own democracies.
But the fact that Putin scored a goal in his spy games with the west is not my key concern. We are no longer in the cold-war era and the major threat to European democracy does not come from a foreign bloc, a foreign power, regardless of how much the latter despises democratic ideals. It comes from inside, from Europe’s own anaesthetised consumer-citizens. Our democracy is at stake and we - Europeans - should be asking our governments for clarifications in the first place, rather than passing the initiative to the Bolivians. We should be asking who rules in Europe and in our own countries! And maybe, if it not already too late, we should also press our governments to offer asylum to Edward Snowden! Once in a while, democratic principles should indeed take precedence over security.
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