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Chatty leaders vulnerable to foreign surveillance

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  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel is among the world leaders who are trying to cope following allegations of massive electronic monitoring by the U.S. National Security Agency.

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel is among the world leaders who are trying to cope following allegations of massive electronic monitoring by the U.S. National Security Agency.
    Associated Press File photo, 2011

Associated Press

BERLIN -- The world has changed since 1929, when U.S. Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson shut down the State Department's code-breaking office, declaring "gentlemen don't read others' mail." In the current age of surveillance, world leaders -- who are by their very nature uber-communicators -- are especially vulnerable to communications snooping by friends and foes alike. Here's how some are trying to cope following allegations of massive electronic monitoring by the U.S. National Security Agency:


German Chancellor Angela Merkel reacted mildly last spring to the initial allegations of widespread NSA surveillance leaked by Edward Snowden, reminding Germans that U.S. intelligence helped their country in the fight against terrorism. Her tone changed sharply this week after the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported her own cellphone may have been tapped, declaring Thursday that spying among friends "cannot be." Merkel may be especially vulnerable. She's an inveterate mobile phone user, often seen texting or chatting on her cell. In 2007 Merkel told German radio that she had no plans to ban cellphones in government meeting rooms because people would simply text from the toilets. Merkel is especially adept at texting and is fond of its efficiency.


Electronic eavesdropping comes as no surprise in Italy, which is among the most heavily wiretapped countries in the world. Italian media feasted for years on leaks of ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's salacious conversations -- presumably that were monitored by police -- about extravagant `'bunga bunga" parties at his residences, as well as other matters political and personal matters. Berlusconi, who has been convicted of tax fraud, has cast himself as a victim and champion of democratic values. "We are all spied on," he declared in 2010. That didn't stop Berlusconi and his allies from stooping to using wiretapped conversations for political gain. Earlier this year, the media magnate was convicted of breach of confidentiality in a case stemming from one of his own newspapers' illegal publication of wiretapped conversations related to a bank takeover attempt.


The best way to avoid being monitored is not to communicate. But that's not feasible in the modern age, especially for leaders of major countries. French President Francois Hollande alluded to the dilemma Thursday, telling reporters he couldn't very well stop using the phone just because some unauthorized figure was listening in. "I use the telephone," said Hollande, whose country maintains its own robust spying operations. "Fortunately, I haven't gone back to the Stone Age. I don't use Morse code, for example, or something else."


Some of the recent allegations have included alleged NSA spying on former Mexican President Felipe Calderon. Perhaps as a result, his successor, Enrique Pena Nieto, has been cautious about using cellphones, emails and social networking sites. He's seldom seen in public using a mobile. That could also be due in part to firsthand experience with the risks of too much communication. In 2011, his teenage daughter Paulina reacted to social media critiques of her father by retweeting a comment describing his critics as a "bunch of idiots" who only criticize "those they envy." Pena Nieto quickly apologized, as did his daughter. Even before the latest revelations, the Mexican government announced it had begun tightening security on voice and data -- including expanded encryption.


NSA revelations have also prompted Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, to tighten his communications security. His spokesman Andres Michelena wouldn't provide details because "it's a confidential topic." Correa has already offered Snowden political asylum if the NSA leaker can find a way to reach Ecuador from Russia. And the Ecuadoreans have been hosting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in their embassy in London for more than a year. Ecuador has also announced it will join Brazil in creating an Internet infrastructure independent of the U.S. to sidestep NSA snooping.


Bolivia's left-wing President Evo Morales may still use the phone, but he's discontinued using email. After he took office in 2006, Morales said he found microphones in his office and suspected the Americans. Two years later, he expelled the U.S. ambassador and agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for allegedly inciting his political opponents. The final straw came in July, when his plane was forced to make an unscheduled stop in Vienna on a flight from Moscow because of suspicions that Snowden was onboard. After that, Morales said he was told by other leaders that the U.S. was reading emails. "Some brothers have told me: `Evo don't use it. So I stopped," he said.


At a press conference in Brussels, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte sparred Thursday with a reporter who kept pressing whether he was under surveillance. Rutte asked the journalist if he was sure he was not being spied on. "No, I am not sure," the reporter said. Rutte replied: "Me neither."

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