11 November 2013

The revelations by Edward Snowden, supplemented by aerial photography, have merely highlighted what has long been known to some (including the odd historian! see my British Diplomacy in Turkey, publ. 2009, p. 223); namely, that the attics and roofs of embassy and large consular buildings provide ideal platforms for the staff and equipment of eavesdropping agencies. This is not only because these buildings are inviolable under diplomatic and consular law but also because they tend to be located very close to the government offices which are their targets. In this regard, the US Embassy in Berlin, on which so much attention has recently been focused, is not alone. However, diplomatic law insists that information gathering must only be undertaken by ‘lawful means’ and, while it is one thing to wink at this in time honoured fashion by placing a few intelligence officers in embassies under diplomatic cover (which all states can do), it is quite another to so flagrantly disregard it in the manner adopted by the ‘five eyes’ states (USA, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) when it was inevitable that sooner or later the whole world would know about it. Of course, the fact that embassies have had such value for the NSA, GCHQ and no doubt kindred agencies in other rich states helps to explain why such missions have survived the death notices served on them by the uninitiated in the 1960s and 1970s, but the techno-spooks are no longer doing them a favour. Let the spooks find other platforms; or, rather, make more use of the other platforms they already possess.