It was an awkward moment for the host of the annual meeting of the world’s most powerful political leaders. On June 16, the eve of the G-8 meeting in Northern Ireland, the Guardian newspaper reported that British intelligence agencies had spied on officials from friendly governments during two G-20 summits in London in 2009. The G-20 includes all of the G-8 nations.
The Guardian’s story was based on what the newspaper said were more documents provided by Edward Snowden, a former contract employee for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). Snowden has publicly acknowledged being the source of a series of revelations about the extent of surveillance conducted by American intelligence agencies, including the NSA. The Guardian’s June 16 story described how Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters had monitored e-mails and telephone calls of friendly countries’ delegates at the G-20 summit meetings.
“The allegations in the Guardian are very worrying,” a spokesman at Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said Monday, reading from a prepared statement. The Guardian report suggested that Turkish officials, including its Finance Minister, were among those delegates spied on in 2009. “If these allegations are true, this is going to be scandalous for the U.K. At a time when international co-operation depends on mutual trust, respect and transparency, such behaviour by an allied country is unacceptable,” the spokesman further said.
The Guardian reported that the documents provided to them by Snowden indicate that e-mail interception and key-logging software was installed on computers in Internet cafés set up specifically for foreign diplomats. Additionally, certain politicians and officials allegedly had their cell-phone calls and messages tracked and sometimes intercepted. According to the newspaper, the documents reveal that Turkey’s Finance Minister, Mehmet Simsek, was targeted by the GCHQ and that the NSA’s employees in Britain attempted to eavesdrop on Russia’s then President, Dmitri Medvedev. Russian officials suggested Monday that the spying reports had increased levels of mistrust between Russia and the U.S., with the chairman of the Russian State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, Alexei Pushkov, decrying the reports as a “scandal.”
The documents also suggest, according to the Guardian, “that the operation was sanctioned in principle at a senior level in the government of the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, and that intelligence, including briefings for visiting delegates, was passed to British ministers.”
Peter Sommer, a visiting professor at De Montfort University’s Cyber Security Centre in Leicester, England, says that although most countries would be smart to suspect that their allies and enemies alike regularly gather intelligence on them, having proof of the fact publicly revealed is startling. “Britain, like many other countries, maintains an electronic-espionage agency, and it’s probably doing its job,” Sommer says. “The interesting thing about the stuff in the Guardian today is it seems to provide much more solid evidence [of] what most of us guessed was going on.”
The embarrassing revelation comes as current British Prime Minister David Cameron today greets fellow leaders of the G-8 members — all from countries which were part of the G-20 gathering four years ago — in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, for the group’s 39th summit. But while Sommer admits that “it’s always embarrassing to get caught,” he says it’s unlikely that the revelation will cause much additional strain on the group’s conference. “I would imagine that what is probably going on behind closed doors in Northern Ireland at the moment is the exchange of rueful smiles, rather than anything else,” he says.
Yet even if G-8 leaders are willing to brush the surveillance information off in private, the meeting isn’t likely to be without discord. The civil war in Syria is expected to be the main issue on the agenda at the two-day conference, and considering the different stances taken by some member states — with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin a supporter of Syria’s President Bashar Assad and U.S. officials now saying they are prepared to arm the country’s rebel forces — the discussion is likely to be fraught with tension. Other topics scheduled for discussion by the group include the global economy, tax evasion and counterterrorism.
Security in Northern Ireland — a region that has seen its own share of strife — has been boosted for the meeting. The G-8 summits are typically magnets for protests and rallies, and this year’s meeting is likely to be no exception. U.K. officials have stated that some 8,000 police officers are being deployed to monitor potential demonstrations outside the conference.
— With reporting by Oliver John / London