Surveillance: Angela Merkel doesn’t play poker…


Rod Rees writes: John Rhys-Davies (who played Gimli in The Lord of the Rings trilogy) once opined that: ‘Spying is like chess: sometimes you have to withdraw, sometimes you have to sacrifice one of your pieces to win – preferably a knight rather than a king or a queen.’

Unfortunately Rhys-Davies was wrong on two counts. The first is mechanistic: you can’t sacrifice your king in chess. But the second is more philosophical.

When you sit down to play chess you can see all the pieces – those belonging to yourself and those controlled by your opponent – and, moreover, you both know the rules governing the playing of the game. This is not the case in the topsy-turvy world of espionage. Here each side does its damnedest to hide its pieces from the opposition and the breaking of rules is not only expected but positively encouraged. Further, in espionage there is never only one opponent: a nation’s enemies are numerous and even those who evince friendship might, if push comes to shove, reveal themselves as in league with the bad guys.

Espionage is a game of bluff and counter-bluff. Thus espionage is more akin to poker than to chess with every player desperately trying to keep his opponents from having a peek at the cards he or she is holding.

Of course, as in real-life poker, everyone is trying to get an advantage (fair or otherwise) and religiously searches their opponents for ‘tells’,  the signals regarding the strength or weakness of a player’s hand that are sent by the player’s body language or by changes to their physiological condition. How a player holds himself, how he stacks and plays with his chips, the way his hands move, his facial expressions  …  all these and many, many others can give clues as to the player’s state of mind and what their intention is vis à vis their hand.

I suspect that the reason why in the last twenty years we’ve seen such a blanding-out of our politicians. (In Britain, post-Thatcher, all the leaders of our political parties have been youngish, white, sport a full head of hair but no beards or moustaches, have an athletic frame, are neatly if conservatively dressed, have a family life of yawning conventionality and speak in a neutered, indeterminate accent. Only one deviated from that template, Brown, and look what happened to him!) The reason isn’t wholly to do with this being the ‘image’ of a leader that opinion polls tell the party gurus will best secure victory in an election but also because it is indicative of a person who is willing to sublimate his personality to the political process … a person who can maintain an impassive poker face.

But there is another aspect of poker playing which has a wider relevance to the espionage world-at-large: card counting. Card counters in poker keep a mental record of all the high and low valued cards played and this allows them to assess the probability of a high or low value card being played next (for anyone interested I recommend Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich).

Surveillance is card counting writ large, the means by which espionage agencies seek to tip the cards in their favour. The problem is that to do this surveillance must be directed at all the players, friendly and unfriendly alike, because their actions are intertwined and what one player does influences what other players do and so on. Thus it is no surprise that America’s NSA and Britain’s GCHQ have been eavesdropping on the German government. Germany is a powerful nation and what it does has major international political and economic repercussions, therefore for Angela Merkel to say (following the disclosure that the NSA had accessed her phone records) ‘Spying on friends is not on at all’ is breathtakingly naïve.

For her to say she didn’t know what was going on is pure bullshit. Back in 1998 the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee commissioned a report which advised ‘The European Parliament should reject proposals from the United States for making private messages via the global communications network assessable to US intelligence agencies’. The report urged the NSA’s activities in Europe be scaled back or be made more transparent. They did neither, so for Merkel to pronounce ignorance is hokum.

The report also castigated Britain’s involvement in this snooping. Just as NSA and GCHQ have circumvented domestic controls by indulging in reciprocal surveillance in order that they can monitor (all?) their country’s citizens (‘Hi there GCHQ!’) so they have done the same thing in Germany (and Spain and Italy…).

Methinks that Merkel’s outrage wasn’t triggered by moral indignation but rather by the thought that she wasn’t one of the Watchers but one of the Watched.

Welcome to the club, Angela. Maybe you should take up poker?

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