Ongoing US spying row reveals new tensions between imperialist powers

Millions of ordinary people internationally routinely spied upon by state agencies

By Robert Bechert, Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)

official-the-white-house-may-end-us-spying-on-friendly-foreign-leadersWidespread anger across the world, especially in Europe and Latin America, and embarrassment in Washington greeted the news that the US security services and those of its closest allies, particularly Britain, have been spying both on their supposed allies and tens of millions of ordinary people around the world.

Now the Obama administration, faced with mounting anger inside and outside the US, has begun to distance itself from the NSA (National Security Agency).

Suddenly Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chair of the Senate intelligence committee, has announced she is “totally opposed” to spying on allies.

Feinstein claimed that Obama was “not aware” of the bugging of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phones, but whether this is really true or an attempt at saving face is not clear.

Capitalist state machines are not necessarily controlled by political leaders, they can act as a “state within a state”.

Way back in the 1950s the then Republican US president Eisenhower warned of the influence of a “military-industrial complex”.

In Britain the former minister Chris Huhne now says that Cabinet ministers and members of the national security council were told nothing about the existence and scale of the vast data-gathering programmes run by British and American intelligence agencies, ministers were in “utter ignorance” of the two biggest covert operations, Prism and Tempora.

Certainly political leaders, including solidly pro-capitalist politicians, are not necessarily told what the “security state” is actually doing.

However, the long time it has taken the Obama administration to distance itself from some of the NSA’s activities heightens suspicions that it is only retreating now under pressure.

The fact is that former US defence contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations have had an increasing impact.

They continue to shine some shafts of light onto the attempts to build ‘security states’ around the world, the attempt to use ‘terrorist threats’ as a justification for curtailing democratic rights and the very real tensions that exist between most powers, including so-called allies.

It is perhaps no accident that the US’s tapping of Merkel’s phone began in the run-up to the 2003 war on Iraq.

The then Bush administration, along with Labour’s Tony Blair, did not trust either the French or German governments which were opposed to the invasion of Iraq.

It is really no surprise that states are trying to make the maximum use they can of new technologies to increase their powers.

The scale of what can now be done is striking; the US National Security Agency is building capacity to process 20 billion “record events” every single day.

Neither is it surprising that states, including allies, spy on each other. As has been repeatedly said since Snowden started releasing documents, at the end of the day each state defends its own interests, ie the interests of its ruling class.

While now apologising for bugging some leaders, Obama has overseen a big growth in US cyber activity, ranging from mass surveillance to increased assassination by unmanned drones.

“Five Eyes”

Public anger in Germany has forced Merkel to publicly acknowledge that the US government was bugging her mobile phone.

Initially back in August, as the German election campaign was starting, Merkel’s chief of staff dismissed the issue as being “finished” because she feared that such revelations could boost the Pirate party.

Merkel, along with French President Francois Hollande, is using this scandal to demand that Germany and France are let into the US led ‘inner circle’ of spies, currently called “Five Eyes”, that share information and ‘promise’ not to spy on one another.

The very existence of “Five Eyes” and Britain’s closeness to the US is an illustration of how underlying conflicts of interests, potential or current, between states can continue.

Britain’s closeness, the so-called ‘special relationship’, with the US stems from the historic decline of British capitalism from the end of the 19th century.

The Second World War cemented this relationship and was the basis for the 1946 intelligence agreement that eventually became the “Five Eyes” group (extended over the following ten years to include Canada, Australia and New Zealand).

After the failure of the 1956 Anglo-French Suez invasion, the British ruling class accepted that it could no longer act in a totally independent fashion.

The resulting British dependence on the US has put Cameron in a difficult position as Snowden’s leaks continue.

More and more evidence is coming out of Britain’s role in the US spying operation, like GCHQ’s Tempora operation to tap international fibre-optic cables or its own operations against Belgium and Italy.

The British government is desperately trying to cover its own tracks and shut down criticism by endlessly repeating the claim that Snowden’s leaks were damaging the fight against terrorism.

Thus Andrew Parker, the MI5 boss, says these leaks have done “enormous damage”.

Cameron, speaking just after the news of the bugging of Merkel’s phones made international headlines, dismissed all the complaints as “la-di-dah, airy-fairy” criticisms of Britain’s “brave” spies as he evaded answering the question of whether the British security services were involved in spying on other European leaders.

These pleas to trust the state are not plausible. One of the reasons for Snowden’s actions was that his bosses were lying to the US Congress.

No one has forgotten the lies that surrounded the British and US governments’ drive towards invading Iraq.

This continual lying and deceit is one reason why the security and military services themselves are not ‘secure’.

Operatives such as Snowden, Chelsea Manning (former known as Bradley Manning) and others, disgusted at what they see, leak information.

In Britain and internationally there is a growing popular feeling that unaccountable states are gaining more and more powers over, and knowledge of, the lives of ordinary people.

There is also widespread disgust at the generous compliance of the telecoms and social media multinationals.

Renewed rivalries

One of the aspects Snowden has exposed is the rivalry between nation states, this is why the US bugged Merkel and other foreign leaders.

This is the reason why, as the Wall Street Journal has reported, that the bugging of some of the 35 foreign leaders the NSA targeted is still continuing.

There has been a fundamental shift in the world situation over the last two decades. To a certain extent the post-1945 division of the world into competing capitalist and non-capitalist sectors provided a ‘glue’ which held most of the major capitalist powers together.

They felt threatened that a rival system to capitalism existed, notwithstanding that Russia, China, and the eastern Bloc countries were not ‘socialist’ but were run by totalitarian elites.

However, these states’ economies were not capitalist, and their problems were not the ones of capitalist booms and slumps. But, the collapse of these regimes removed a rival social system.

The restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe, along with the tremendous growth of the capitalist economy in China, removed a common threat to the capitalist powers and allowed a freer rein to national rivalries between them.

While the integration of production and markets around the world have held back the dramatic worsening of international relations during these first years since the world economic crisis erupted in 2007/8, the rivalries between the competing powers have not gone away.

The US bugging campaign is seen by other countries as part of an attempt to get a stronger hand in trade negotiations.

But it is certain that other countries do the same as they attempt to steal an advantage over one another.

Many in France and Spain have been shocked by stories of tens of millions of phone calls, texts and emails being checked by the NSA just in one month.

But the complaints of their governments are hypocritical as their own security services are no better. They have had their own security scandals.

In Germany there are the open questions as to why the security services were unable to track down or stop the NSU underground Nazi grouping that carried out ten murders after 2000 and why security files relating to the NSU were destroyed.

French governments have been prepared to intervene brutally to defend their own capitalist interests, frequently in francophone Africa but also wider afield, including the sinking of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand in 1985.


For socialists the defence of democratic rights of the mass of people is essential. This includes opposition to increased powers to an unaccountable, and therefore undemocratic, state and its forces.

History has shown that a state machine cannot indefinitely hold back a people rising in struggle. Egypt is a good case in point.

The US’s modern technology could not prevent the overthrow of its ally Mubarak in 2011. Instead both the Egyptian military and its US ally were forced to retreat and hope that they could exploit the weaknesses of the revolutionary movement to buy time and prepare a counter-blow.

The Egyptian revolution’s fate will not be decided by bugging or hacking but by how the mass movement develops, especially whether or not the working people can agree upon a socialist programme which can give them power and break the rule of unaccountable elites and their security forces.

This is why it will not be spies but working people who will have the opportunity to reshape the world.

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