Stop bleating about being bugged – everyone’s playing the spy game

I SPY with my little eye somebody beginning with M. Or, more currently, it should be: I hear with my big ear someone called Merkel gabbling on her cellphone – quaintly known to Germans as a ‘handy’ – and have done for yonks.

Handy is an apt word if you’re an eavesdropper from the US National Security Agency, the NSA now unofficially renamed Nosy Snoopers on Anyone, as they cock a snook (or spook) at friend and foe alike, all treated without fear or favour.

In almost any other context such equanimity would be laudable. In this case it’s upset the balance of trust that existed between allies and prompted a storm of diplomatic outrage that shows no sign of abating.

It’s always been a given that all’s fair in spying and prying where enemies collide. Hence the lack of uproar when the Russians were said to have presented ‘Trojan Horse’ gifts of USB flash-drive pens and cellphone chargers to delegates at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg that relayed info back to the Kremlin.

But, scuppering your friends? How low can the spooks stoop, even if it’s only commercial, industrial and financial espionage? Answer: No-one’s off limits.

NOT SO HANDY: Angela Merkel is raging over the NSA's hacking of her cellphone, know in German as a 'handy'

HANDY HORROR: Angela Merkel is raging over reports that the NSA hacked her cellphone, know in German as a ‘handy’

Small wonder German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is incandescent with rage that the NSA nobbled her Nokia – she’s now swapped it for a more secure Blackberry Z10 – while thunderclaps of diplomatic indignation have been resounding across Europe.

Thanks to whistleblower and former CIA contractor, Ed Snowden, currently dossing down out of CIA clutches in Moscow, it appears the good ole boys at America’s ace electronic surveillance squad, in Fort Mead, Maryland, have been scanning heaven-knows-how-many telecons and emails across swathes of Western Europe and the Americas.

Francois Hollande, the French President, was incredulous when told the NSA secretly monitored 70 million calls, texts and emails made in France; Premier Mariano Rajoy was similarly gobsmacked to learn 60 million were trawled in Spain; and the Italians choked on their cannelloni at news of 46 million intercepts.

The leaders of Brazil and Mexico were also furious at reports they were victims.

In fact, the only national leader not to quibble his handpiece was hacked is Prime Minister David Cameron, presumably on the basis that Britain’s GCHQ has a mutual, back-scratching deal with the Americans.

Just for the record the mindboggling tallies I’ve listed cover only one month of NSA snooping…between December, 2012, and this January, although it was heartening to know the listeners had the good grace to take off December 30, New Year’s Day and January 2.

Using software appropriately branded ‘Boundless Informant’, the NSA apparently noted where calls were made, the series numbers of handsets, SIM card data and duration of calls.

It makes allegations against former Murdoch newspapers’luminaries, including ex-News of the World editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson – on trial at the Old Bailey, in London, on charges variously related to hacking voice-mail messages and corruption – seem playground frolics by comparison.

Meanwhile, according to Glenn Greenwald – the Brazil-based US journalist, who has worked with Snowden to publish the spying revelations – though call content was not recorded, intercepts included intrusion in personal information through internet browsers, emails and social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.

CENTRE OF THE STORM: The NSA's headquarters, in Maryland, where the hacking was said to be authorised

CENTRE OF THE STORM: The NSA’s headquarters, in Maryland, where the hacking was said to be authorised

As the evidence stacks up, President Obama has been forced into humiliating apologies to his nominal pals, telling Merkel, ‘Your phone isn’t being tapped and will not be.’

In subtle contrast, he is said to have told Cameron, ‘Your phone has never been tapped, isn’t being tapped and will never be’, which clearly indicates America’s commander-in-chief knew his German counterpart had been a target, if no longer.

So, despite attempts to paint Obama as an ‘ignorant party’ to his eavesdroppers’ operations, he can’t wriggle off the hook and blame his predecessor, President G ‘Dubya’ Bush, for authorising the earwigging in the first place. Contrary to Hollywood myth, information gathering of this type – codenamed COMINT (communications intelligence) – at this level isn’t some ‘black op’ handled covertly by a rogue outfit working outside its remit.

Strangely, US spooks are unrepentant over this furore. Even more bizarrely, their cloak-and-laptop buddies across Europe don’t seem particularly fazed either, even if their political masters are in a blue funk, or feign as much.

Because, the simple truth is everyone’s at it, not just the usual suspects, principally China – which hacks into US and British IT systems countless times a day – and Russia’s FSB, which morphed from the KGB.

According to The Sunday Times, Bernard Squarcini, ex-head of French intelligence, admits, ‘All countries, even allies co-operating in the anti-terrorist struggle, are spying on each other.

‘The Americans spy on us in the commercial and industrial field and we spy on them, because it’s in the national interest to defend our companies. Everyone knows it.’

And Merkel’s a fine one to moan. The BND, Germany’s equivalent of MI5, fessed up to the Bild newspaper that it monitored phone calls, text message and emails in the USA, saying, ‘We take what we can get. If someone offers us information, for instance about the Americans, we will not throw it in the bin.’

Neither is Britain an innocent bystander. In fact, the UK is hugely respected as maestros of the spying game, numbering amongst its virtuoso performances bugging the Bundesbank, tapping the handpieces of UN Security Council members and – if ex-Labour minister Clare Short is to be believed – nobbling UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan’s cellphone in the prelude to the 1990 Gulf War.

Professor Anthony Glees, an expert in espionage, is pretty sangfroid in his assessment of the intelligence community, saying that despite co-operation between friendly nations, spying on one another was routine.

‘Any agency worth its salt would do it,’ he states blandly. ‘You’d want your money back if they didn’t.’

So the next time a world leader bleats about being bugged, I suggest they recall the biblical exhortation along the lines of, ‘Let he (or she) who is without sin cast the first stone.’

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Why Spain is stuck between a rock and a hard place over British Gib

Not for nothing is this time of year dubbed ‘The Silly Season’ and my prediction for the summer of 2013 is that it’ll go down in the annals as one of the daftest yet.

With parliaments in long recess, official business on hold and politicos busy spending their ill-gotten gains in sunnier climes, we news types are left scratching around for something pertinent to report.

Then – lo and behold! – our prayers are answered by another gripping sequel to an on-going brouhaha concerning a 2.6-square mile pimple on the gluteus maximus of Europe, with a population of around 30,000.

Yes, Gibraltar is again making headlines for all the wrong reasons. And, regardless of which country’s media and jingoism you subscribe to, there’s no denying the fact that verbal exocets are exploding with increasing velocity from both sides of the great divide, though Spain’s more so than Britain’s.

To the Spanish El Peñón, as they call The Rock, is a long-festering scab that gets picked from time to time, often – surprise, surprise! – coinciding with economic gloom. It’s a sure-fire distraction to set Latin tempers aflame, because it pricks to the pride of a nation whose patchwork quilt of autonomous regions regularly threatens to come apart at the seams.

So, while Catalans, Galicians, Extramadurans and certainly Basques can’t agree on most issues, Gib is the glue that sticks the Spanish Humpty Dumpty together again.

ROCK SOLID: 99% of Gibraltarians want to remain British

ROCK SOLID: 99% of Gibraltarians want to remain British

General Franco certainly understood the emotional impact of playing the Gibraltar card, because he made much of expunging the British overseas territory from local maps and inventing ‘border incidents’ to suit his whims.

Following in the footprints of the fascist dictator’s jackboots, now centre-Right premier Mariano Rajoy is in high dungeon over the Gib government’s decision to create an artificial reef to protect fish stocks by dumping concrete blocks into its waters, ostensibly imperilling the livelihoods of Spanish fishermen.

However, at a time when corruption allegations swirl round Spain’s government, the economy is on the rocks and unemployment at one of the highest levels in the EU, 7,000 Spaniards daily cross onto The Rock to work – a fact not lost on union chiefs, livid with their leader’s posturing in far-off Madrid.

Despite the commerical benefits, in what smacks of the backdrop to a farcical Gilbert and Sullivan libretto, Gibraltar has become an international flashpoint – and not for the first time at the petulant Rajoy’s prompting.

In May, 2012, the Popular Party leader threw his toys out of the pram and banned Queen Sofia from officially attending her cousin, Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, presumably because it somehow implied recognition of UK sovereignty over the craggy outcrop. And to add insult to royal injury, Spain formally objected to a visit by Prince Edward and his missus to The Rock as part of his mum’s knees-up.

Now, cranking up the pressure, Spain’s foreign minister, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, mutters darkly about to taking Gib to the United Nations – not that they could sort out a schoolyard scrap – or the International Court of Justice, bogged down as it is in The Hague with the mundane trivia of trying war criminals.

ON THE ROCKS: Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish PM, is using Gib as a convenient distration

GIB THUMPER: But is Spanish PM, Mariano Rajoy, simply using The Rock as a convenient distraction?

Meanwhile, a ploy being touted in Madrid is teaming up in common cause with Cristina Fernández Kirchner, Argentina’s pseudo-democratic dominatrix, who’s obsessed with ‘liberating’ the Falklands/Malvinas from British rule, despite all but one of the 2,841 islanders refusing her kind offer of citizenship.

However, Spain should realise that getting into the diplomatic sack with Hissy Crissy has its downsides, since she presides over a corrupt and bankrupt state that last year siezed YPF – the local arm of Spanish energy giant, Repsol – to pay off debts.

The odds, then, of a Spain-Argentina axis bearing fruit are, as my bookmaker says, about as good as a three-legged Chihuahua exploding out of Trap 6 to win the Greyhound Derby.

Neither has the weight of history on its side and both claims to territory that’s not theirs reek of crass hypocrisy.

Spain can blame the overarching ambition of Philip V for the loss of Gibraltar, because in 1701 he tried to usurp the French throne in what became known as the War of Spanish Succession.

Fearing a calamitous shift in European power, an alliance between Britain, Holland, the Germanic Holy Roman Empire and the Duchy of Savoy crushed the Bourbon’s biscuit.

Gibraltar was captured in 1704 by an Anglo-Dutch fleet and, in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, ceded to Britain (along with Minorca temporarily) ‘in perpetuity’, which – the last time I consulted my lexicon – meant forever and a sunset.

Over the centuries the miniscule splodge of Jurassic limestone has played a defining role in Britain’s defences and, to some extent, still does. Moreover, in the last 13 years, its inhabitants have twice voted in plebiscites, by 99 to one, to remain British, which, under Europe’s rules of people’s self-determination, should render the issue beyond debate.

Like his Argentinian counterpart in the case of the Falklands, that doesn’t stop Rajoy banging on about bi-lateral talks with Britain over Gib’s future, bypassing the reasonable and legal aspirations of the locals.

However, when taken to task, he conveniently dodges the thorny topics of Melilla and Ceuta, the two enclaves of Spain’s North African empire, which the uppity Moroccans somehow consider theirs.

Let’s not forget, either, the medieval town of Olivenza, which the Spanish wrested from Portugal in the 1801 War of the Oranges and have retained with dubious legality ever since, irrespective of the fact that the Portuguese no longer kick up a fuss over its ownership.

And, if we’re discussing historical imperatives, add one from Osama bin Laden, whose first diktat as Al-Qaeda’s head honcho was to demand the return of Andalucía – El Andaluz, as his forbearers called it before 1492 – to Muslim dominion.

Verily, as pots call kettles black in the kitchen of international diplomacy, the vipers of historical fact have an unfortunate habit of biting the dissenter in the backside.

If ‘Mutti’ Merkel doesn’t pay up, there’ll be nothing rosy in her Euroland back garden

Bismark, the founder of modern Germany, once remarked that ‘politics wasn’t an exact science’, but failed to add that those engaged in its dark arts should carry a health warning, rather like a packet of cigarettes.

So, the day I start to trust forked-tongued politicians, book me a slab in the mortuary or – worse still – a place in the nearest home for gaga, financially-distressed  gentlefolk, where I can dribble away my days, as a nurse feeds me Complan through a bendy straw.

At least, Baroness Thatcher was a straight-talker in whatever guise people viewed her…the Tory radical, who did a pretty fair impression of that compulsive thrasher, Wackford Squeers, in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, or the Blessed St. Margaret, whose good works saved Britain.

That debate will rage long after last Wednesday’s ‘ceremonial’ funeral – an event of such grandeur and expense (£10M), she’s still dividing a nation. So, there’s simply no escaping the impact of politicians, dead or alive.

That suspicion crossed my mind last week last week, as my gestor – here that’s a financial administration or accountant – filled out our Modelo 720, the declaration all Spanish residents must file before April 30, if they have more than €50K of assets squirreled away beyond the shores of this sun-kissed realm.

Pesky bureauprats harvesting information at the behest of their political masters always makes me bristle. And, after the Cyprus farrago – when the government ram-raided private bank accounts to comply with a €multi-billion loan from the Troika (European Central Bank+IMF+EU Commission) – who’s to say what’s round the proverbial corner.

BANK HEIST: Cypriots protest after their bank accounts were raid to pay for the Troika's loan

BANK HEIST: Cypriots protest after their bank accounts were raid to pay for the Troika’s loan

‘The declaration is only to stop money-laundering and nothing to fear,’ Juan the gestor assured me. ‘Spain’s finance minister has said so.’

‘Oh, I’ll certainly sleep easier tonight if a politician said that,’ I told him, my irony falling on deaf ears.

Then I learned of a new, little threat being hatched by Germany’s financial wunderkinds: Making better-off home-owners cough up towards bailing out Eurozone members, skinter than a church mouse’s scullery maid.

This latest proposal from Angela Merkel’s brains’ trust – a.k.a. the ‘Five Wise Men’ – comes with a blaring caveat: their job is to think the unthinkable, but their ideas often translate into policies.

Before this sends paroxysm through more than 400,000 Brits with properties in Spain – plus innumerable other foreign nationals, not to say a few Germans – here’s the good news…to date, Mariono Rajoy’s centre-Right government has managed to keep its begging bowl in Madrid, forestalling the Troika’s torture rack by introducing its own oppressive austerity measures.

So the pain in Spain stays local in the main.

But there’s no mistaking Berlin’s chagrin at having to back-stop loans to whom it perceives as feckless Latins and grabbing Greeks, whose countries host pied-a-terres belonging to some with Europe’s deepest pockets.

As the London Daily Telegraph’s Ambrose Pritchard Evans noted, ‘Taxes on property or other assets would mark a significant change in Europe’s approach to funding bail-outs…until now, the cost of rescue packages has fallen largely on people who invest in those country’s bonds, or – in the case of Cyprus – bank accounts.’

However, Professor Peter Bofinger, one of the German Chancellor’s advisers, says levies on bank accounts are a mistake, because the really whiffy rich can move moolah around at the click of a computer keyboard.

What the ‘haves’ cannot do, however, is shift bricks and mortar with the same alacrity. So why not hit holiday/second homes?

With Merkel facing re-election in September, ‘Mutti’ – ‘Mummy’ as she’s nicknamed in by the German media – needs to appease an electorate angry their uber-rich nation is forced to act as Europe’s backer of last resort, hence their growing attraction to the new, Alternative für Deutschland party, a sort of UKIP in lederhosen.

MUTTERS ABOUT MUTTI: Germans are angry about bail-outs for the 'better-offs' in the Eurozone's south

MUTTERS ABOUT MUTTI: Germans are angry about bail-outs for the ‘better-offs’ in the Eurozone’s south

Meanwhile, her Five Wise Men have siezed on an inconvenient truth: Germans are generally not as financially comfy as their southern Eurozone cousins, a point recently highlighted by a European Central Bank study.

Incredible as it seems from the country that gave the world BMW, Mercedes and Porsche, less than half of Germans own their own homes and the median (or mid-point) wealth of the average Frankfurter is €51,000, compared with €183,000 for a Spaniard, €172,000 for an Italian and – wait for it – €267,000 for a Cypriot.

No, honestly, I’m not making those figures up.

Conversely, there are counter claims by the new ‘have-nots’ of Club Med, who ask – not without cause – which country had gained most from the great United States of Euroland experiment?

The answer is self-evidently Germany, which has grown exponentially, outstripping the culturally and historically diverse southern states, regardless of its feted Anglo-Saxon work ethic (though, knowing the long hours an average Spaniard puts into a job, that’s debatable).

Perhaps this can be attributed to better organisation and discipline; of being less ham-strung by needless bureaucracy and statism; of not imagining you could leverage your way into competing with the irresistible Teutonic juggernaut by making your territory the playground of Europe, gracias to a geographic gift of climate.

However, the incontrovertible reality is Germany’s vision of a one-size-fits all Eurozone isn’t working. And the cost of keeping it afloat will long be measured in billions – maybe trillions, if Spain or Italy goes bust – to boost economies than can’t possibly imitate its example.

The USofA works on the premise that the richest states (e.g. California and New York) top up the poorest (i.e. Arkansas and Mississippi) via taxation and few cavil at that.

Which is why, on the near horizon at least, a USofE is unlikely to aspire to America’s motto, ‘E pluribus unum’ – ‘Out of many, one’. Because cultural and historical diversity no longer matter as archly in the home of the brave than on a continent ravaged by centuries of war, a Tower of Babel where memories are long.

A USofE might be the theoretical pipedream of many politicians. But the cold, harsh facts contradict every economic principle since the demise of feudalism.

Yes, a free market – where goods, money and people are interchangeable – can survive and prosper, but a political-monetary-fiscal entity is an altogether different illusion. And, thus far, a single currency imposed on disparate nations has never succeeded, as a Latin one failed in 1927 and a Scandinavian version – linked to the Gold Standard – between Sweden, Denmark and Norway bit the dust in1914.

So, if Germany wants a neat and tidy Eurozone back garden, tended by Spanish vintners, Greeks mowing its lawn and Portugeezers pruning orange groves, it must pay – or go its own way.

Revealed: Spain’s great consumer tax rise rip-off

In Britain it’s called Value Added Tax (VAT), though where the ‘value added’ is remains a mystery. Elsewhere the self-same iniquity is levied across the European Union, enjoying different handles – here in Spain we call it IVA, while in France it is known as TVA and in Denmark, Finland and Sweden the acronym is the cuddly-sounding, but equally-detestable Moms.

First introduced in 1954 in France, it was based on a wunderbar wheeze for a universal consumer tax coined in 1918 by German industrialist Wilhelm Von Siemens.

Unlike far more equitable income tax, VAT/IVA/TVA or whatever nonsensical tag it poses under is basically pernicious, since it is applied without demur across all demographic groups and consequently hits the poor hardest.

This, though, is generally in keeping with EU custom and practice, since the Europrats of Brussels couldn’t think their way out of a paper bag and their one raison d’etre is keeping their juicy jobs at whatever cost to the people of member nations they allegedly serve or soak (take your pick).

Nations are free – to a limited extent – to fix their own levels of said tax. So, in an effort to dig itself out of the self-impose doo-doo caused by a rampant house-building and lending boom, a couple of months ago the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, announced IVA would rise from 18 to 21% from September 1. To those without a calendar, that was six days ago – a salutary date, as I will endeavour to explain.

To the best of my knowledge and that of 43 million Spaniards, Senor Rajoy never uttered a syllable about the IVA rise being applied retrospectively.

PHONE-A-FIDDLE? Consumers want to know why Telefonica has levied the new 3% tax rise a month early

That fact, however, appears to have conveniently escaped the attention some of the country’s major service providers – notably Telefonica, Spain’s answer to BT and, in its guise as O2 and Movistar, the fifth largest mobile network operator in the world (revenue in 2011: €62,837 billion / profit: €6,187 billion / assets: €129,623 billion).

As I write, a blizzard of monthly bills is cascading through Spanish consumers’ letterboxes with IVA levied at the new rate of 21%, despite the fact that they cover calls and internet services for the month of August, when the tax was still calculated at 18%.

Perhaps this is a technical blip, an accountancy blunder. On the other hand, maybe this is just another example of mega-corporations ripping off customers, with the blind-eyed connivance of government.

Some explanation is required rapido and a good many hard-done-by working folk, who rely on phones, mobiles and internet connections for their dwindling jobs would like to hear it.

Over to you Senor Rajoy…

Is this the end of the road for the Euro bullies?

Slowly, but surely, the cat is emerging from the Eurozone bag – and it’s a ruthless, snarling beast with sharp claws, hardly the fluffy pussy the International Monetary Fund and Europrats of Brussels would have you believe.

Because a doomsday scenario is being shaped by the ominously-understated Euro Working Group (EWG) in the event – likelihood more like it – of a Greek exit (‘Grexit’ in money-market speak), after next Sunday’s second General Election in weeks for the vote-weary Greeks is predicted to deliver a resounding win for far-Left, anti-austerity parties.

The plot being hatched by the EWG is likely to act as a template for other errant nations that won’t take their German-prescribed medicine (note to Spain’s PM, Mariano Rajoy: ‘Swallow the bitter pill, amigo, or else’) and it amounts to this:-

  • Suspension of the Schengen Agreement, thus reintroducing border checks at all Eurozone frontiers (to halt a rush of money smuggling);
  • Capital controls to staunch a run on banks;
  • Limits on cash withdrawals from ATMs

Cristine Lagarde, the IMF boss, still refuses to predict whether Greece will leave the euro, claiming that ‘It’s going to be a question of political determination and drive’.

THE PESETA: Is a return beckoning?

Whatever this coded sentiment or loosely-construed threat actually amounts to is anyone’s guess, but last week billionaire investor George Soros, who knows a thing or two about currency trading, indicated the EU has three months to sort out its financial crisis or its curtains for the euro.

And, however Lagarde, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Rajoy and the Brussels’ spouters dress it up, this week’s €100-billion ‘rescue’ package for Spain’s ailing banks was nothing but a straightforward sovereign loan to buy time and precious little else for Rajoy’s regime.

As a consequence, to all intents and purposes the European Central Bank now has first charge on Spanish assets. So any private investor buying Spain’s government debt bonds (are there are any still loco enough to do so?) will be relegated to the end of the queue if it ever comes to pay-back time.

That essentially freezes the country out of the capital markets, so its financial destiny is wholly hocked up to the IMF/EU forever and a day, unless Spain follows the Grexit with a Spexit and eventually quits the euro for a return to the peseta (Portugal and Ireland get ready to dust off the escudo and punt, respectively).

Naturally, the Europhile politicos and Europrats will cry into their Chablis that their dream of a single-currency, one-size-fits-all mish-mash has been shattered and their power is gone.

But the flip side is we might return to the original ethos of the Common Market – a tariff-free trading zone, with the unhindered passage of goods, people and cash, not some ill-conceived United States of Europe, where nations cede their national identities to an unelected, anti-democratic ruling clique of Euro bullies.

Naturally, it means an end to straight bananas and the survival of cheese-and-onion crisps – both proscribed by Brussels – but somehow I think we can live with that.