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Blurred Lines and Lost Trust?… Diplomacy and Intelligence Gathering. Eavesdropping on G20 Delegates in 2009

Published on 18 June 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

The Guardian reports that during the London G20 summit in 2009, British intelligence services read delegates’ e-mail exchanges, hacked delegates’ smart phones and even set up an internet café for G20 participants with the purpose of extracting password details and related information. It seems that the aim was to provide real-time or at least timely information to gain negotiation advantages during the summit. G20 in London was especially important because it was a key step in developing the G20 into a forum for international economic cooperation before the backdrop of the global financial crisis. The news of extensive intelligence gathering undertaken during the G20 summit was released by the Guardian on Sunday evening, just hours before the beginning of the G8 summit currently taking place under British presidency.  

This piece is an attempt to begin to think through the relationship between diplomacy and intelligence gathering and the consequences of the London G20 incident for trust in diplomacy. I am wondering, are these activities to be expected, maybe even normal? And how does this square with the idea that trust is essential for diplomacy?

Diplomacy and intelligence gathering

Historically, the art of diplomacy and the art of spying were closely associated. Diplomats, in essence, were spies. This changed with further specialisation of government departments beginning in the 19th century. And while there is a separation between the diplomatic and the intelligence profession, the two remain close. Intelligence is used in diplomacy, both in terms of strategy and tactics, to gain advantages. However, with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the line between what is acceptable information gathering and what is unacceptable in diplomatic relations has been drawn more clearly. (Herman, 1998)

Michael Herman, a diplomacy and intelligence scholar at Oxford further argues that “… some distancing between intelligence and diplomacy is desirable, at least to the extent that the association between them (and the targeting of foreign diplomats and premises) should be kept within reasonable limits, and not expanded to a renewed Cold War scale.” (Herman, 1998, 18)

Where to locate this dividing line between intelligence gathering and diplomacy is of course a matter of judgement. However, it is interesting to note that maybe this line has recently become more blurred, or so it seems (see for example this NY Times article on the WikiLeaks revelation regarding the conduct of US State Department officials). However, the London G20 case might be new or unusual in so far as this is a case of a live intelligence feed that was meant to directly influence the negotiations as they were underway. From an outsider’s perspective it is hard to tell whether or not the incident of London G20 is a serious violation of norms regarding the boundary between diplomacy and intelligence gathering or business as usual.  

Business as usual?

There have been suggestions that this is might be part of normal practices that just happened to be dragged into the spotlight through the documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowdon. Matthew M. Aid, an intelligence historian based in Washington argues that this “is just what intelligence agencies do – spy on friends and enemies alike  … Only because the shroud of secrecy that covers all of NSA operations is so thick does a glimpse like this come as a shock.” Shortly after the release of the first Guardian article on Sunday night, a British Member of Parliament reacted on twitter using a more crude language but essentially expressing the same thought: “Do bears **** in the woods? Is the Pope Catholic? Are wind farms an obscenity? Does GCHQ [British Government Communications Headquarters] spy on other Gov’ts. Yes Guardian looks very silly.” Further, referring to statements by “experts,” an Associated Press report states that “the expressions of shock may be spurious – it’s widely known that all nearly all countries spy on one another.”

Or violating key norms?

Other reactions suggest that what happened at the G20 in London is not quite as normal. Richard J. Aldrich, a British academic and expert on British intelligence, is quoted saying that the “diplomatic fallout from this could be considerable.”

Those that have been on the receiving end of the eavesdropping at London G20, probably unsurprisingly, express outrage and argue that a key norm of diplomatic conduct has been violated. The former head of the FSB, the Russian domestic intelligence agency, Nikolai Kovalev is quoted in the Guardian: “From a technical point of view, spying on those negotiating on the territory of a country doesn’t present any great difficulties … To avoid diplomatic and international scandal security agencies are forbidden from doing this. And usually they don’t do it.”

The reaction from the Turkish side was to summon the British ambassador. In a statement by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs the incident, if true, is called a scandal. “Such (an) act by an allied country would clearly be deemed unacceptable … British authorities are expected to present an official and satisfactory explanation on this issue.”

The Russian and Turkish reactions suggest that a key norm of diplomatic conduct has been violated and that this incident goes beyond usual practice. However, there might also be another explanation. The more cynical answer would be that the problem simply is that this incident has become public. According to this line of thought, the practice is common and maybe even accepted, at least expected. However, because the incident is now public knowledge, a social game of expressing public outrage about such practice has to follow. Going back to Aldrich, the problem of “diplomatic fallout” might not stem from the activity as such and the norm violated and the trust betrayed but simply the unlucky circumstances of it having become public. The Russian and the Turkish reactions are simply part of a diplomatic game where everyone knows what is going but everyone also pretends it is otherwise.

Exploiting trust?

However, there is another point that suggests that such practice is not as common at all. The case of the G20 internet café that according to the Guardian had been set to intercept e-mail and record passwords and other valuable information through key-logging software is interesting in this regard. In order for any valuable intelligence to have come out of this, there must have been some trust on the side of delegates to be exploited. In other words, why would such a facility be used by delegates if they had to expect that they might compromise valuable information? This underscores the point that the practice is not business as usual, would not be expected, and violates norms of diplomatic conduct.  

Trust, what trust?

A lot is written about trust in diplomacy and how crucial it is. If this is indeed the case, what are the implications of the London G20 incident?

For example, Diplo’s very own Ambassador Kishan Rana points out how “[l]eaders who enjoy close friendship, say among the G-8 countries, often designate personal contact channels … at ASEAN one hears of ministers and heads that exchange text messages, via email and SMS … I am sure the same is true of the EU, given the frequency of encounters among the leaders of member states.” It is interesting how Rana mentions multilateral fora such as the G8 and ASEAN where these close friendships develop and where trust is needed. Is the same still thinkable among the G20, was it ever?

In an op-ed piece in the NY Times Wolfgang Ischinger argued that trust “is the fabric of diplomacy.” Under the heading “The end of diplomacy as we know it?” the former German ambassador to London and Washington reacted to WikiLeaks, specifically CableGate. CableGate is the term for the 2010 release of classified diplomatic cables sent from US embassies to the State Department between the 1960s and 2010. Indeed, a plausible argument often heard at the time was that CableGate is harmful to the conduct of diplomacy. In those arguments, diplomacy is described as a special institution, a special kind of social practice that requires protection and needs to be allowed to continue in secrecy in order to function. Trust would vanish in the face of the possibility of sensitive exchanges being published. Ischinger for example concludes about WikiLeaks’ CableGate that “[t]his is why this is not just about the hurt egos of some political leaders negatively described in embassy cables. This is more serious: It is about war and peace, and it can be about life or death.”

Following that line of thought, the London G20 incident violated a key norm of diplomatic conduct. The line between diplomacy and intelligence gathering was blurred and trust was undermined – all of this with potential serious consequences. On the other hand, if we accept that this is business as usual – that only the very naïve would be surprised about – the conclusions for trust in diplomacy are far reaching. It would mean that there is no trust in diplomacy or that trust is only reserved for special kinds of relationships. In either case, these are some uncomfortable questions to be confronted.

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1 reply
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Interesting points about
    Interesting points about trust. My suggestion would be to think about trust in terms of something at an interpersonal level not as something between states. If you look at Henry Kissinger as a negotiator he would build his relationship with his interlocutor by distancing himself from the rest of the US government. When something happened to upset the other side he could blame it on the fact the US is a collectivity.

    A slightly different way of looking at the incident is that countries need to review their protocols for the security of diplomatic communication and make sure that they are enforced. It’s not as though the British interest in signals intelligence is a secret but a digital environment just makes it easier for diplomats to forget the protocols.

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