Snowden keeps on rolling, much to the unease – and occasional disgust – of the US and its allies. As it does so, there’s a distinct sense of exasperation even amongst folks who really aren’t gunning for the US or the UK (in particular). Were they really acting in such a way that were their cover to be blown, they would be left with serious egg on their faces? Were they OK with that? Why the serious disconnect between policy and practice? Or, at the very least, why the apparent inability to minimise the visible gap between what the US and allies say they stand for, and what they actually do?
In a sense, there’s little new here: this is the stuff of political scandals ancient and modern. Iran-Contra springs to mind as a modern example of elements of the state apparatus acting in institutionally-condoned contravention of extant legislation and overt policy. There are many, many more and one should not point the finger at the US as the sole – or even worst – perpetrator of double-standards in state activities.
The US may, however, lay claim to being perhaps the most self-defeating. Partly this is due to its status as global hyperpower – anything it does must inevitably be viewed in light of its unique position amongst states. When the loudest voice in the room says one thing and does another, everybody heard it the first time around and remembers what it said. Moreover, opponents are usually only too keen to throw those words back in its face.
So, another exposure in The New York Times, another day. Another opportunity to say, wtf? Or, in conspiracy circles, ‘I told you so’, an utterance generally intended to justify past speculation rather than reasoned argument. This time, it seems that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been up to no good in the networks of Chinese telecoms giant, Huawei.
The problem is not so much that the NSA has been infiltrating a foreign company in the furtherance of the national interest – that much seems normal in a way unthinkable five years ago. The real issue is that Huawei is the company consistently identified in Congress and media as a national security threat to the US – on account of its unproven hacking activities with respect to US networks. Rather inevitably, the US ends up looking like a hypocrite at worst, or strategically incompetent at best.
I’ve written before that it might serve Huawei’s interests to be more open about its business practices, thereby allaying Western suspicions about its links to the Chinese military. In some ways, Huawei has done just that. For example, it has had to allow GCHQ a strong hand in the management of its UK facilities, surely not an easy pill for any private company to swallow. But while Huawei has seen that some compromise is necessary to further its interests, both the US and UK have continued to voice their concerns about the company, specifically framing it as a security threat and making it difficult for the company to do business, in the US particularly.
What the NYT report (also Der Spiegel) shows is that one NSA operation, Shotgiant, has been around since at least 2010. This was tasked with finding links between Huawei and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the conclusions of which enquiry we do not know. Over this same period, policy-makers and Congressional committees tore strips off Huawei for its alleged activities: hacking into sensitive private and public sector networks, copying data, impacting US competitiveness, and so on. This might be true – no evidence has been produced to support these arguments or to counter them – but what is apparent is that while Huawei has been accused of such things, the most technically competent agency in the US has actually been doing more-or-less the same.
We can argue about whether the NSA technical operations themselves were in the national interest, or if Huawei is ‘guilty’ or not, or whether the Snowden/NYT/Guardian/Greenwald axis is traitorous/etc, but none of these sideshows is particularly relevant to the main event: the US has been caught with its hand in the cookie jar again. Yes, you can condemn Huawei’s alleged activities as illegal corporate espionage and justify NSA actions as legitimate operations in the defence of the national interest but to the rest of the world that’s splitting hairs and an argument that won’t, for the most part, be heard. The Chinese are, for example, emphatically not blameless in this area but that’s not what people are likely to – or even want – to hear.
What is – or perhaps should be – one of the chief lessons of Snowden and, to a certain extent, Manning/Wikileaks, is that justifying covert US military and intelligence operations post facto is a tricky business. When your private actions compromise your public words, you’re in trouble. We common folk have a name for this: hypocrisy.
When what you do damages your reputation because it undermines your strategic narrative, perhaps you either reconsider your narrative or think again about what you do. Preferably, both. Or does the US simply not care? Perhaps hypocrisy is the narrative.
Of course, that’s a naive view of the business of international relations. Or is it?