Q&A: The Catalan Way explained

Why are Catalans taking part in a human chain this Wednesday? The Catalan newspaper Ara has produced a series of questions and answers in English which should explain everything you want to know about why the human chain is taking place today.

What is the ‘Via Catalana’?

The ‘Via Catalana’ (The Catalan Way) is a political demonstration which will take place this September the 11th. Inspired by the Baltic Way — a human chain formed by up to two million people on August 23 1989 across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — its aim is to create a 400 km long chain which will cross Catalonia from north to south. 400.000 people have signed up to take part in the human chain, although organizers hope that the actual turnout will be at least twice that figure. People will be asked to join hands at exactly 17:14 (15:14 GMT). The chain, which runs along highways, roads and city streets, will come to an end at 18:00 (16:00 GMT). If successful, it will be one of Europe’s largest ever demonstrations, following in the footsteps of last year’s march in Barcelona, when up to 1,5 million people walked through the streets of the capital asking for independence, the country’s most massive rally ever. Continue reading

Security tactics

Regarding the headline here:

US and UK at odds over security tactics as row escalates

something comes to mind.

The signals intelligence alliance between the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand is also an information security alliance. This may be the most important element of it. The countries involved, plus some other partners, maintain a big book of standards known as IRSIG (International Regulations on Signals Intelligence) which sets the standard operating procedures down.

First of all, this explains why the British (or, say, Canada) would care so much. There is no difference between the political decision to share intelligence, and the administrative one to classify it at a level that permits the recipient to see it. To do the latter implies the former, and vice versa. Therefore, most of the information in the system is as classified in the UK as in the US (or Canada).

Secondly, I wonder if there is a plan set out in IRSIG or a similar joint document on what to do in the event of leakers. This would explain a lot.

Their fibres are radioactive.

It’s been a bit All Snowden, All The Time on this blog. I think it makes sense to read the story as a European one, though. Here’s a little more. From Snowden Part One:

Snowden: As a general rule, so long as you have any choice at all, you should never route through or peer with the UK under any circumstances. Their fibers are radioactive, and even the Queen’s selfies to the pool boy get logged.

This got remarkably little attention in the UK but it ought to have done. The southern UK is an enormous centre of telecoms infrastructure, especially in terms of peering and interconnection. There is just so much hard infrastructure in the ground that it’s not practical for this stuff to leave for some time. But some time only goes for some time. Amsterdam, for example, is already home to AMS-IX, an Internet exchange as big as LINX. Paris doesn’t have a serious IX for some reason, although there is a lot of fibre and that could change.

The real keys to the Internet economy are peering points and data centres. We would be horrified if someone with a global platform was to suggest blacklisting aircraft or ships that call in the UK. We should be similarly concerned about the long term costs of all this interception, especially as it didn’t keep us out of Iraq or provide useful information about Helmand before the Army went in.

Spies for Europe.

We’ve suspected for some time that the French and German governments’ refusal to take part in the Iraq war had something to do with their access to independent overhead imagery satellites. Briefly, France and Germany did (with the HELIOS and SAR Lupe programs respectively), and didn’t take part at all. Spain and Italy had some access to French imagery and had advanced plans to get their own. They made a limited commitment. The UK, Australia, Denmark, and the ROK relied on the United States and were, in a phrase that should be better known outside Australia, all the way with LBJ. Turkey didn’t have its own, although it has since acquired a satellite from Italy and it did have liaison staff at the little-known EU Satellite Centre, but it probably had ample intelligence from human sources.

The original statement is in this Ken Silverstein piece (see this blog post of mine from 2006):

“They say everyone else was wrong,” said this former official, “but we conditioned them to be wrong. We spend [tens of billions of dollars per year] on signals intelligence and when we reach a conclusion, the people who spend less than that tend to believe us. They weren’t wrong, they chose to believe us. The British, Germans, and Italians don’t have all those overhead assets, so they rely on us. Historically they have been well-served, so they believe us when we tell them the earth is round. The French have their own assets—and guess what? They didn’t go with us.”

Guilhem Penent, of France’s IFRI and IRSEM thinktanks, writes in the Space Review as follows:

Regarding outer space, France’s main objective is to perpetuate its autonomy and national sovereignty. As sovereignty is the state of determining itself based on its own will without depending on other nations, satellites are, first and foremost, the guarantee of France’s autonomy in assessment and thereby in decision-making.

The decision not to follow the US in 2003 was thus taken by then President Jacques Chirac in accordance with intelligence based for the most part on Earth-imaging satellite HELIOS 1, whose findings were in contradiction which was being said at the UN Security Council. When the war in South Ossetia broke out in 2008 between Russia and Georgia, then President Nicolas Sarkozy, as chair of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU), used images provided by HELIOS 1 and HELIOS 2 to deny Russia’s allegations about the withdrawal of its troops when those troops were actually progressing southward.

This is the first public confirmation, I believe, that the French did in fact stand out of the Iraq war because HELIOS imagery showed that the WMD claims were nonsense. IFRI, and even more so IRSEM, are organisations with the status of something like CSBA in the States or RUSI in the UK, so this should be taken seriously.

Chris Williams, who pointed me to the TSR piece, contrasts the British concern about sovereignty with regard to things like bananas, beef, and birth certificates, with the French equation of it with independent verification technology. He has a point. (So does Dan Hardie in comments there, who points out that perhaps the French could have benefited by worrying more about their influence over monetary policy, something no British Eurosceptic has ever omitted to worry about.) I’ve repeatedly argued this elsewhere.

There are a couple of points here. I feel a degree of contradiction between my suspicion of mass telecoms surveillance and my enthusiasm for overhead imagery. Perhaps that’s just the conviction that however much fuss I kick up, it’s unlikely anyone will burn limited delta-vee to get pictures of me, but you can’t say that about X-KEYSCORE. With more consideration, I think it’s the terms-of-trade in the relationships I described in this post that worry me most of all.

From a British point of view, the deal was fairly simple. The UK would concentrate on signals intelligence and would share everything with the US, and would stay out of the satellite business. In exchange, the US would share back their satellite product. We know that on at least one occasion, during the Falklands War, this didn’t happen. Later, the UK started a major project, known as ZIRCON, to build a signals intelligence satellite. This went overbudget badly, but got a surprising degree of support from Margaret Thatcher for reasons of sovereignty vis-a-vis the US, before being abandoned when the Americans instead offered a share of the targeting slots for their equivalent system in exchange for cash.

But the ZIRCON strand of the story doesn’t cover imagery. It seems that the national interest was very poorly served by this part of the deal – the implicit sigint-for-imagery trade – to say the least, both in Iraq and possibly later in Afghanistan.

Since the 1980s, the cost of satellites has fallen sharply, notably due to the work at Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. in Guildford. The UK had a very quiet test project between 2005 and 2009, and going ahead with an operational system on a similar basis to the Germans’ was being discussed openly by the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills as late as early 2011. Since then, it’s all gone quiet over here…so what did happen to that project? And do we need more Europe here?

I think the answer to that is much more clearly Yes than it ever was with regard to the Euro. The main objection from the UK side (and from Atlanticist Europe more broadly) is that the Americans might not share as much stuff with us. But this makes less sense on close examination. In so far as it is a market-like, bargaining relationship, we would be in a stronger position. In so far as it is a relationship of integration among allies, the alliance would be better off as a whole and might be more allied. In so far as it is a feudal, tributary relationship, it would be less so. (You’ll notice that Penent alludes to this in the TSR article.)

And this doesn’t take any account of the quality of the information received. It seems that the information the US shared with its partners in the intelligence special relationship before Iraq was worse than useless – in fact, functionally defined, it was disinformation. Its recipients were less informed after receiving it than they were before. Even a small increase in independent capability might have the useful effect of keeping both parties more honest.


Oh well, here it is: yes, Virginia, the BND shared enormous amounts of surveillance material with the NSA, both from their military SIGINT group deployed with the German army in Afghanistan and from, well, Germany. Officially, this didn’t contain any information on German citizens. Also, the Germans offered the Americans the use of two software applications they developed, presumably as part of the deal for X-KEYSCORE.

Meanwhile, the Germans have given notice on an agreement from 1968 that permitted the western allies to request surveillance in cases that affected the security of their forces in West Germany. This document had apparently not been used since 1990 (they say). Oddly, the US and UK agreed immediately to terminate it by exchange of notes, but the Germans were still negotiating with France yesterday.

Edward Snowden and the Political West

Germany is the theatre in which the consequences of Edward Snowden’s disclosures are being played out. Why is this?

Obviously, privacy and data protection are especially sensitive in Germany. After the Stasi, the centrality of big databases to the West German state’s response to the left-wing terrorists of the 1970s, and the extensive Nazi use of telephone intercepts during the seizure of power, it couldn’t really be otherwise. Privacy and digital activism is older and better established in Germany than anywhere else – in the US, for example, I consider the founding text of the movement to be the FBI vs. Steve Jackson Games case from 1990 or thereabouts, while the key text in Germany is the court judgment on the national census from ten years earlier. But the UK has a (strong) data protection act and no-one seems anywhere near as exercised, although they probably should be.

So here’s an important German word, which we could well import into English: Deutungshoheit. This translates literally as “interpretative superiority” and is analogous to “air superiority”. Deutungshoheit is what politicians and their spin doctors attempt to win by putting forward their interpretations and framings of the semirandom events that constitute the “news”. In this case, the key event was Snowden’s disclosure of the BOUNDLESS INFORMANT slides, which show that the NSA’s Internet surveillance operations collect large amounts of information from sources in Germany.

The slides don’t say anything about how, whether this was information on German customers handed over by US cloud companies under PRISM orders, tapped from cables elsewhere, somehow collected inside Germany, or perhaps shared with the NSA by German intelligence. This last option is by far the most controversial and the most illegal in Germany. The battle for Deutungshoheit, therefore, consisted in denying any German involvement and projecting the German government, like the people in question, as passive victims of US intrusion.

On the other hand, Snowden’s support-network in the Berlin digital activist world, centred around Jacob “ioerror” Applebaum, strove to imply that in fact German agencies had been active participants, and Snowden’s own choice of further disclosures seems to have been guided by an intent to influence German politicians. Der Spiegel, rather than the Guardian, has been getting documents first and their content is mostly about Germany.

In this second phase, the German political elite has shifted its feet; rather than trying to deny any involvement whatsoever, they have instead tried to interpret the possibility of something really outrageous as being necessary for your security, and part of fundamental alliance commitments which cannot be questioned within the limits of respectable discourse. The ur-text here is Die Zeit‘s interview with Angela Merkel, in which Merkel argues that she knew nothing, further that there was a balance to strike between freedom and security, that although some kinds of spying were unacceptable, the alliance came first. The effectiveness of this, at least in the context of the interview, can be measured by astonishingly uncritical questions like the one in which she was asked “what additional efforts were necessary from the Germans to maintain their competitiveness”.

So what’s going on? British intelligence historian Richard Aldrich’s history of the UK signals intelligence agency, GCHQ, is illuminating. He argues that since the 1980s, the (West-) German government has had a long-term policy of building up the BND intelligence agency’s SIGINT capability. This was explicitly encouraged by the NSA, specifically its then director William Odom, who wished to get less European intelligence from the British. Obviously, this implies German intelligence sharing with the NSA.

At the same time, the (West-) Germans wanted to get more of their own information on subjects that interested them, notably operational-level (corps and above) military intelligence on the Soviet forces. The British were also concerned about this, for different reasons. The intelligence alliance between the UK and US, and the so-called Tier 2 partners (Canada, New Zealand, and Australia), predates NATO and was often sceptical about the security of NATO and West German institutions. As a result, signals intelligence reaching NATO commanders in Germany was often marked CAN/US/UK EYES ONLY and therefore too secret to show the Bundeswehr, who were providing 500,000 soldiers in 12 armoured and mechanised divisions with 24 hours’ notice. The absurdity of this can be seen from the fact that NATO multinational HQs often had a German general as one of the three posts of commander, deputy commander, or chief of staff. The British were, for their part, concerned that the US system was not going to get usable reports forward into the field in time to be any use. Both the UK, with the Nimrod R1 program, and the Germans spent serious money to solve this.

Another factor in the 80s was that France was encouraging other European countries to contribute to its own intelligence collaboration. Joining this would only add a further degree of dependence, on France, if Germany didn’t bring something to the table. Building up the BND and sharing information therefore served several different motives.

There was a patron-client motive, in which the Germans sought greater independence from the US (and its allies). There was an alliance-integration motive, in which the Germans (and the UK, and the US) sought to strengthen the alliance’s (or alliances?) technical capability and to deepen the partners’ commitment to it (them?). And there was also a bargaining or marketlike motive, in which the Germans were seeking to have more intelligence on hand that could be traded for advantages, whether with the French, the US, or whoever. I think this is also true of the other participants in the intelligence alliances – the UK, for example, didn’t build its own satellite capability, partly because there was a feeling that the Americans would do it better, but also because participating more deeply in the US satellite program, by having part of the take from the satellites downlinked at Menwith Hill and analysed at GCHQ, created a stronger bargaining position with the Americans (and others) in terms of the final intelligence product.

We now know, thanks to the latest Snowden event, that the BND and the federal version of the Verfassungschutz were offered the use of the X-KEYSCORE system, which seems to be an analytics tool for working with a wide variety of Internet surveillance data sets. Interestingly, the Verfassungsschutzer were offered training by BND officers, implying that they already had the system.

The US motive can also be analysed in the same terms as above. As an ally, they may have wished to strengthen German antiterrorist efforts (this happened shortly after the discovery of a terrorist plot in Germany). As a patron, they may have wished to reward their client, and also discourage them from developing their own technology or cooperating with some other party (like China!, following Britain’s lead). This was fairly common in the cold war era, according to Aldrich, when there was both a will to improve NATO communications security and a will to maintain some advantage over the other NATO partners. And as a bargaining actor, they may have acted because they were offered a good deal in return. So, what was the deal?

(If you want a clue, you might wonder what the large company operating in both the US and Germany mentioned in some of the PRISM documents is.)

In general, I think the BND is likely to have shifted from being closer to the “patron/client” model, towards “bargaining/market”, while still being very much “alliance/integration”. After all, the last sections of the NSA facility in Germany were handed back in May last year. It is very telling, though, that one of the first reactions to the Snowden disclosures from German politicians was outrage that Germany wasn’t considered even a “Tier-2” partner – probably fake outrage from those in the know. (As we have seen, this term has a definition.) This isn’t the reaction of people who are horrified at the thought of spying, though, rather that of people shocked that their investment in spying is not paying off as well as they hoped.

So, to round off, the point of the battle for Deutungshoheit is to maintain the primacy of Atlanticism in German public debate on foreign policy. This is, in many ways, the mirror image of the primacy of ECB-ism in debate on economic policy. Those who accept the consensus are respectable, those who aren’t, aren’t. If you doubt, the same issue of Die Zeit would tell you that the EU-US trade agreement must be signed for the sake of the “political West”. Everything going on here is touching on German privacy fear, but also on profound questions of geopolitics, and just politics. It is therefore very interesting that Der Spiegel, usually very, very NATO-minded, is being so difficult and un-biddable.

It is also probable that Edward Snowden’s best chance to get out of Russia is to disrupt the politics of SIGINT in Europe as much as possible.

We still owe it to them, and blaming private companies will not do.

Back in 2007, the Danish army withdrew from Iraq. The government originally tried to avoid accepting Iraqis who had worked for the Danes as refugees, despite the fact that they were in grave danger of reprisals. Eventually, after a protest campaign and a protest by senior army officers, the Danish government gave in. In the UK, this example was followed – the government tried to wriggle out of it, this blog among many other people protested as part of Dan Hardie‘s campaign, and eventually some action was taken.

History is repeating itself, as Le Monde reports. The story is paywalled, but the essential point is that the NATO deployment to Afghanistan will only shrink from here to 2015, the Danes will be off very soon, and again the government is trying to wriggle out of its obligations to Afghans who they relied on in a variety of roles and who are now faced with Taliban vengeance.

This time, though, the cowardice and moral abasement has reached a new low. The official argument is apparently that the interpreters (and others) were employed by a private company, and therefore it is nothing to do with Denmark! This is repellent. It is not just that a moral obligation exists, or that a norm of common decency is involved. This attempt to hide behind privatisation is undignified, dishonest, dishonourable. Everyone involved ought to be deeply ashamed.

Now I strongly suspect that history will repeat itself in the UK as well, and no doubt in the other European contributors to ISAF. So it is important to get angry early, in order to make an example to the others. To lead off, I will ask a question.

The story above refers to a supposed private company, says that it is a British company, and then names it as LSU or Labour Support Unit. But there is no such company registered in Britain. “Labour Support Unit”, in general, is a British military organisation, a staff attached to a large formation or garrison that is responsible for employing civilians.

So either Le Monde is confused, perhaps because “company” can be a business, a social group, or a military unit in English, or else the Danish government is bullshitting to its own public that it’s all the problem of the private sector, while hoping that the British government sorts out the problem and spends the money. This is a sorry, sordid business.

Of fish, flowers, AKs, offshore banking, and now horsemeat

The horsemeat scandal has taken an unexpected, and possibly very significant, turn. So the Cyprus company controlled by Dutch meat merchant Jan Fasen, who was caught last year passing off South American horsemeat, and which is accused of doing the same with horses from Romania and the British Isles, turns out to have a single director, which is itself a company. (Fasen’s firm, if you haven’t heard, is named Draap, or the Dutch word for “horse” spelled backwards.)

This second company, Guardstand, also controls something called Ilex Ventures, which was used by…ahem…the international arms dealer Viktor Bout to buy some aeroplanes. Oh. Guardstand, for its part, is controlled by something called Trident Trust, which is a company-formation agent in Cyprus, which mostly serves Russian customers.

Now, it would probably be wrong to assume that Bout was behind the horsemeat racket or that some huger interest controlled both. It is probably more useful to look at this from a horizontal, functional perspective. Both Bout and the horsemeat guy made use of Cyprus’s role as a Russian-speaking offshore financial services centre with access to the eurozone.

There’s quite a lot more information at Reporting Project, which speaks to this point. The corporate structure is more complicated than the Guardian piece suggests. Draap’s sole shareholder is Hermes Guardian Ltd. in the British Virgin Islands, its sole director is Guardstand, and the company secretary is Trident Trust. Hermes Guardian is a shareholder in numerous other Cypriot companies, and one of its directors is the head of the Cypriot Fiduciary Association. And both Guardstand and Trident were also used during a half billion dollar acquisition of a steel mill in Donetsk.

All this originated because of the existence of a tax treaty between the Soviet Union and Cyprus. Russians and Russian money have been very obvious in Cyprus in the euro era.

It is often suggested that this treaty, like the similar one with Iceland, was intended by the Soviet side to help finance their intelligence agents in the West. If true, it’s possible that Bout would have been aware of it, having worked for the GRU (Soviet/Russian Military Intelligence) in Africa in the 1980s. As he used the Sharjah Airport free-trade zone as the trading and aviation centre of his business, he may have used Cyprus as the financial centre. These are the places where the rubber meets the road of globalisation, and they tend to build up a layer of secrets over time.

This immediately reminds me that his alleged financial manager, Richard Chichakli, has recently surrendered to Australian police after eight years on the run. He’s been extradited to the United States, where Bout is serving his sentence, still protesting to Russia Today that he only ever dealt in fish and flowers.

Now, for the other significant bit. Cyprus has a lot of the same economic problems as, say, Greece. Notably, its banks are in trouble and the sovereign may have to bail them out and the sovereign itself will end up bust, so on and so forth, we all know the story by now. One of the reasons the Cypriot sovereign is on the hook for quite so much money is that Cyprus has surprisingly big banks. Of course, they’re linked up to the rest of Europe via TARGET 2, so if the big depositors spook*, it’s an instant run on the bank.

Big depositors, you say? And who might they be? I think it is fair to say that nobody is particularly keen to bail out Viktor Bout or Horsemeat Guy. As a result, it’s politically very possible that the whole idea of a bail-in might get tested. And whether it does, and the exact terms, are increasingly linked to things like “how far into the maze the journalists get” and “whether Richard Chichakli starts singing in jail”.

And we may be going to see what happens when an offshore financial centre goes bust.

*surely the right word here…


A serious Iraqi newspaper is saying openly that it may be time to give up the Shia-Kurdish alliance that has run Iraq since Saddam, and let the Kurds move on to independence.

Shots fired at an Iraqi army helicopter to keep it from reconnoitoring Kurdish positions, while Jalal Talabani is seriously ill.

Exxon Mobil is giving up on its contracts with Iraq to concentrate on Kurdistan.

Old story, but good: the Turks have a backchannel from their secret service to the Kurds. This caused a major demo round the corner from here today.

The Kurds have, of course, staked out a big chunk of Syria after the government withdrew to fight more worrying rebels. What if this was the year they got what they wanted? I remember blogging years ago that putting a tough and well organised mountain guerrilla army between Turkey and Iraq seemed a fine idea from a Turkish point of view.

Some French links

Here’s a really interesting piece about French interior minister Manuel Valls and the network of friends around him from his days as a student activist. They include Alain Bauer, Nicolas Sarkozy’s security adviser and the man who got the contract to install Vitrolles’ CCTV surveillance network for its FN mayor.

Hubert Vedrine, former minister, was asked to prepare a report on NATO and France’s return to the integrated command structure. Olivier Kempf blogs it. The recommendations are that NATO stays very much in its classical form, a military alliance with a nuclear dimension centred in Europe and the North Atlantic, that France assert itself in the alliance more, and that the European Defence Agency and NATO Supreme Allied Command-Transformation, which are both headed by French officers, should coordinate more closely on industrial and scientific issues.

He seems to be more suspicious of the UK than of NATO as such, and is very critical of the EU defence initiatives as mostly creating duplication, committees, and complexity.

History is made at night records the moment when “discotheque” became a word in English.