An Olympian Scandal
by JOHN BRADY KIESLING
[from the March 20, 2006 issue]
The admirable outcry against warrantless eavesdropping on American
citizens would be more admirable if Americans also understood the costs
of eavesdropping on foreigners. On February 2 three Greek ministers held
a press conference to reveal what the government had kept secret for
nearly a year: that a sophisticated, self-concealing software parasite
had been recording mobile phone conversations of the Greek prime
minister, his wife, the foreign minister, the defense minister and 100
other Vodafone subscribers from before the 2004 Athens Olympics until
March 2005, when the bug was removed.
A Vodafone network manager, engaged to be married and with no known
personal problems, hanged himself at his home one day after the bugging
was originally uncovered last March. He was one of a handful of
employees with the access required to install such software. Vodafone
firmly denied that the death had any connection to the scandal. No one
believes the company. A man died who should have lived. The media
vultures around his corpse justify their feeding frenzy with charges of
The story has dominated Greek headlines ever since. The ten-month secret
investigation has left too many basic questions unanswered. Journalists
have concluded that their government did not want to follow where the
The intercepted calls were forwarded from four cellular antennas. Their
coverage circles overlapped atop the US Embassy. The list of victims was
also damning. Anyone might eavesdrop on a defense minister, but only one
organization still cares about the electrician whose brother-in-law was
implicated in the 1975 murder of CIA station chief Richard Welch by the
terrorist group called 17 November. One telephone was listed to an
inconspicuous Greek-American at the US Embassy. Journalists learned the
phone had been lent to the embassy's Greek police security detail.
A Greek government spokesman has insisted that Greece is in no way
accusing the United States. The US Embassy and State Department have
refused to comment. The Greek justice minister sensibly reminded
everyone that this could be a provokatsia. British and Israeli security
interests resemble America's. Perhaps Mossad had maliciously designed
its eavesdropping to incriminate the United States if discovered. For
many Greeks, however, the list--Olympics security officials, senior
bureaucrats, journalists, Middle Easterners and radical leftists--looked
like a snapshot of US intelligence preoccupations during the 2004 Olympics.
The Greek government has no desire to help Greece's rivals by harming
the US-Greek relationship. Greek officials are adult enough not to take
eavesdropping personally. They rely, however, on the eavesdroppers being
artful enough not to get caught.
In espionage scandals it is the victim who gets punished. Failure to
preserve the national dignity against foreigners is a hanging offense in
every political system in the world. Opposition leader George
Papandreou, polite to the point of diffidence under ordinary
circumstances, demanded the resignation of the relevant ministers. His
fiercer associates plastered their faces across the media with damaging
attacks on Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis. A pro-American government
has been forced to shift its attention from vital, long-overdue economic
reforms to the more urgent task of defending its posterior. A NATO ally
has been seriously undermined. What was the compensating benefit?
One problem with secret intelligence is that you cannot use it without
cutting off the source. Evidence obtained from illegal eavesdropping
never convicted a terrorist or closed an arms deal or brokered a
conflict settlement. The difference between what our friends tell us
publicly and what they tell one another privately is seldom important
enough to matter. Clandestine intelligence collected against allies is
mostly a security blanket, an excuse for not reading local newspapers or
taking local officials to lunch. Diplomats from small countries do their
business adequately without overhearing the prime minister's telephone
The current scandal has a sordid side. Greece bankrupted itself to host
a successful Olympiad, including spending $1.2 billion on security. The
list of potential terrorists the scandal made public was too threadbare
to justify even a fraction of that outlay. By bugging more Greek
Olympics security officials than local radicals, the eavesdroppers
fueled unworthy speculation that they were less concerned for the safety
of athletes and spectators than for the fortunes of SAIC, Beltway
bandits about to default on a major Olympics security contract.
US ambassadors have the duty of assessing whether the likely benefits of
a covert operation are worth the foreign policy costs of its discovery.
Silenced after 9/11, they do not commit bureaucratic suicide by
shielding host governments from the CIA's sometimes inept depredations.
The United States blunders into fiascoes like Iraq when White House
officials, fed context-free snippets of lurid gossip, flatter themselves
that they understand foreigners better than the experts on the ground.
Intelligence briefers do not highlight how much their intelligence
gathering costs America's friends. Nor will Karamanlis blight his
relationship with George W. Bush by complaining. The one secret that
never leaks, the secret Washington fights hardest to preserve, is how
expensive a luxury America's secrets turn out to be.