The admirable outcry against warrantless eavesdropping on American citizens would be more admirable if Americans also understood the costs of eavesdropping on foreigners. On February 2 three Greek ministers held a press conference to reveal what the government had kept secret for nearly a year: that a sophisticated, self-concealing software parasite had been recording mobile phone conversations of the Greek prime minister, his wife, the foreign minister, the defense minister and 100 other Vodafone subscribers from before the 2004 Athens Olympics until March 2005, when the bug was removed.
A Vodafone network manager, engaged to be married and with no known personal problems, hanged himself at his home one day after the bugging was originally uncovered last March. He was one of a handful of employees with the access required to install such software. Vodafone firmly denied that the death had any connection to the scandal. No one believes the company. A man died who should have lived. The media vultures around his corpse justify their feeding frenzy with charges of murder.
The story has dominated Greek headlines ever since. The ten-month secret investigation has left too many basic questions unanswered. Journalists have concluded that their government did not want to follow where the evidence pointed.
The intercepted calls were forwarded from four cellular antennas. Their coverage circles overlapped atop the US Embassy. The list of victims was also damning. Anyone might eavesdrop on a defense minister, but only one organization still cares about the electrician whose brother-in-law was implicated in the 1975 murder of CIA station chief Richard Welch by the terrorist group called 17 November. One telephone was listed to an inconspicuous Greek-American at the US Embassy. Journalists learned the phone had been lent to the embassy’s Greek police security detail.
A Greek government spokesman has insisted that Greece is in no way accusing the United States. The US Embassy and State Department have refused to comment. The Greek justice minister sensibly reminded everyone that this could be a provokatsia. British and Israeli security interests resemble America’s. Perhaps Mossad had maliciously designed its eavesdropping to incriminate the United States if discovered. For many Greeks, however, the list–Olympics security officials, senior bureaucrats, journalists, Middle Easterners and radical leftists–looked like a snapshot of US intelligence preoccupations during the 2004 Olympics.
The Greek government has no desire to help Greece’s rivals by harming the US-Greek relationship. Greek officials are adult enough not to take eavesdropping personally. They rely, however, on the eavesdroppers being artful enough not to get caught.
In espionage scandals it is the victim who gets punished. Failure to preserve the national dignity against foreigners is a hanging offense in every political system in the world. Opposition leader George Papandreou, polite to the point of diffidence under ordinary circumstances, demanded the resignation of the relevant ministers. His fiercer associates plastered their faces across the media with damaging attacks on Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis. A pro-American government has been forced to shift its attention from vital, long-overdue economic reforms to the more urgent task of defending its posterior. A NATO ally has been seriously undermined. What was the compensating benefit?
One problem with secret intelligence is that you cannot use it without cutting off the source. Evidence obtained from illegal eavesdropping never convicted a terrorist or closed an arms deal or brokered a conflict settlement. The difference between what our friends tell us publicly and what they tell one another privately is seldom important enough to matter. Clandestine intelligence collected against allies is mostly a security blanket, an excuse for not reading local newspapers or taking local officials to lunch. Diplomats from small countries do their business adequately without overhearing the prime minister’s telephone calls.
The current scandal has a sordid side. Greece bankrupted itself to host a successful Olympiad, including spending $1.2 billion on security. The list of potential terrorists the scandal made public was too threadbare to justify even a fraction of that outlay. By bugging more Greek Olympics security officials than local radicals, the eavesdroppers fueled unworthy speculation that they were less concerned for the safety of athletes and spectators than for the fortunes of SAIC, Beltway bandits about to default on a major Olympics security contract.
US ambassadors have the duty of assessing whether the likely benefits of a covert operation are worth the foreign policy costs of its discovery. Silenced after 9/11, they do not commit bureaucratic suicide by shielding host governments from the CIA’s sometimes inept depredations. The United States blunders into fiascoes like Iraq when White House officials, fed context-free snippets of lurid gossip, flatter themselves that they understand foreigners better than the experts on the ground.
Intelligence briefers do not highlight how much their intelligence gathering costs America’s friends. Nor will Karamanlis blight his relationship with George W. Bush by complaining. The one secret that never leaks, the secret Washington fights hardest to preserve, is how expensive a luxury America’s secrets turn out to be.