From inside a bomb-proof cellar, deep in the bowels of a villa outside the Dutch city of Eindhoven, a technician from the Forschungsstelle der Reichspost, the research department of the German post office, listened through his headphones to the dense stream of noise. United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill and United States President Franklin Roosevelt were speaking on their telephone, their conversation shielded by Bell Lab’s A3 scrambling system, which cycled through five ciphers every 12 seconds.
Even though no one outside the villa knew it, Nazi Germany’s Sicherheitsdienst intelligence service had defeated the A3’s encryption. The work of Kurt Vetterlein, the gifted forschungsstelle engineer, had given the Nazi leadership real-time access to the private conversations of their enemies’ top leaders.
This week, CitizenLab research revealed that Israel’s Pegasus software was deployed to target secret communications of the UK’s foreign ministry and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office. The espionage, CitizenLab says, likely involved the intelligence services of India, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Cyprus. For just a few million dollars, Pegasus gave countries powers that were monopolised by influential nations for much of modern history.
For many governments, including that of India, the Pegasus story is a compelling argument for placing cutting-edge technology at the heart of their intelligence services. The outcomes of the forschungsstelle’s feat, though, give reason to nuance the conclusion: like all tools, the utility of intelligence technology depends on who uses it and for what purpose.
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Big Brother and his big ears
Little imagination is needed to see why CitizenLab’s revelations have sprouted wry smiles in India’s intelligence community. Ever since the 1960s, the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters was at the heart of the so-called ‘Five Eyes’, the Western intelligence alliance that sucked up and decrypted almost all global electronic communication through the latter half of the century. Five Eyes spied on enemies like the Soviet Union, and, a European Union investigation revealed, on its ‘friends’.
For decades, it also maintained a relentless watch on India’s nuclear weapons and missiles programmes — just as it did on Pakistan, China, and every regional power across the globe.
Long before it purchased Pegasus, India had sought to develop similar monitoring capabilities of its own through projects like the Defence Research and Development Organisation’s NETRA (NEtworking TRaffic Analysis) and the development of Telematics’ Lawful Interception and Monitoring project. There were, however, real-world constraints: the US National Security Agency (NSA), for example, spends more than $400 million a year on pure mathematics research alone.
The problem is this: Big Brother’s ‘big ears’ might hear it all, but hearing isn’t the same thing as listening and drawing useful conclusions. The NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had successfully penetrated al Qaeda before 9/11, generating multiple warnings in the months before the devastating terrorist attacks. But those warnings weren’t properly understood by analysts.
For that matter, the technology didn’t even help the CIA anticipate India’s nuclear weapons tests in 1998, even though its satellites detected unusual activity around Pokhran. Improper assumptions, declassified documents show, led analysts to misinterpret the images.
Similarly, even though India received multiple warnings about the 26/11 attacks, helped by the United Kingdom’s surveillance of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, errors of interpretation and judgement allowed the strikes to occur. Indian spies distinguished themselves in the build-up to the Kargil War, but errors of assessment meant their warnings were ignored.
In the summer of 1943, intercepted Churchill-Roosevelt calls allowed the Nazis to preempt the planned surrender of the Italian military. The following year, the Sicherheitsdienst listened in, as Roosevelt gave the final go-ahead for the invasion of Europe. “Well, we will do our best,” Nazi spymaster Walter Schellenberg recalled, hearing Roosevelt say after the conversation, “Now I will go fishing.”
Even though the Nazis could listen to what their enemies said, there was one problem: nothing they heard told them where the invasion was directed or when. And it didn’t tell them that all their estimations were the result of a massive Allied deception operation.
Information versus intelligence
Legendary East German spy chief Markus Wolf noted that there were limits to what an enemy’s secrets are worth. “Almost all the reams of paper produced by the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and stamped with the codes ‘cosmic’ or ‘top secret’ are, when you get right down to it, not even worth using as toilet paper,” he acidly observed. “Technology can only establish the situation of the moment,” Wolf added, “[but] secret plans, options, and other considerations will remain concealed even from the most sophisticated satellite.”
To this, we can add — that while intelligence can help inform decision-making, it rarely has a decisive impact on the strategic situation.
Allied codebreaking did play a critical role in defeating the Nazis in the Battle of the Atlantic, the titanic struggle to keep Britain supplied through the fight. The brilliant mathematical achievements of the codebreakers, though, would have been of little use without the development of new anti-submarine technologies and, most importantly, the gargantuan shipbuilding capabilities of the US, which made ships faster than the Nazi navy could find and sink them.
In another famous case, during the Battle of Midway, code-breakers provided the United States with precise assessments of Japanese naval intentions. The outcome of the battle, though, had much to do with Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s foolhardiness and bad gambles — not intelligence.
The achievements of the Soviet Union’s spies— Richard Sorge, Leopold Trepper’s Red Orchestra, or double agent Harold “Kim” Philby — show that old-fashioned spies can be, at least, as devastating as the ability to intercept enemy communications.
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Seduced by technology
Languages, long familiarity with peoples and cultures, analytic skills that allow for complex judgements — India’s espionage landscape is short on the kinds of capabilities that great intelligence work depends on. Intelligence services in most Western countries recruit candidates with diverse skill sets, often directly from campuses. The Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), in contrast, draws its leadership from the Indian Police Service (IPS) officers who are given a six-month crash course in intelligence.
Financing technological acquisitions for intelligence services is seductive for governments because it appears to offer a quick fix for intractable problems. Generating a cadre of China specialists will take decades. Purchasing equipment that can penetrate China’s computer networks or monitor ethnic-religious terrorists hidden outside India is relatively easy.
Like India, other countries have sought to compensate for weaknesses with tech fixes. China’s intelligence services — whose “clandestine tradecraft probably does not rate among the world’s most sophisticated,” expert Peter Mattis has noted — have invested heavily in mass data collection and artificial intelligence-driven analysis. There’s reason for scepticism, though. Experts like Arvind Narayan argue that while artificial intelligence has its uses, the claims that it can predict individual behaviours or social outcomes are snake oil.
Even though spying on the phones and computers of Prime Minister Johnson’s inner circle might have generated some tactically useful insights — and perhaps even titillated the spies who were listening in — its real utility is unclear. Experience suggests it is improbable that Pegasus-generated intelligence is of real strategic worth.
Forschungsstelle technology told the Nazis that British foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, thought a bureaucrat, was an “idiot”. As interesting as that might have been, it was of little practical use. Like Markus Wolf might have warned, things that are truly important aren’t discussed on the phone.
Genuine intelligence work needs more than gadgets. India needs to start making the thoroughgoing institutional reforms and capability-building investments its intelligence services desperately need.
Praveen Swami is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)