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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 February, 2004, 17:01 GMT
The world's second oldest profession
By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

Whatever the truth of Clare Short's claim that Britain was spying on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan during the run-up to the Iraq war, the tradition of spying on your friends as well as your enemies is a long established one.

Old telephone bugging device
A rather bulky old telephone bugging device
It is also one which leads to scandals when revealed.

We certainly know that the United States was interested in eavesdropping on members of the Security Council.

The British whistleblower Katherine Gun, against whom charges were dropped on Wednesday, leaked a memo from Frank Koza of the US electronic intelligence gathering body, the National Security Agency, asking for help in targeting the communications of Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria, Guinea and Pakistan.

Mr Koza's request points to one of the most recent revelations about how all this is done.

In this case he would probably have been asking to tap into the network called Echelon.

The existence of Echelon was made known some years ago and was the subject of a report in July 2001 by the European Parliament worried at the civil liberties implications and that Echelon might be for commercial advantage.

Basically five English-speaking countries - the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - are said to have divided up the electronic world between them so that they can intercept communications across much of the globe.

They use ground stations to tap into satellite transmissions mainly to listen into telephone calls, e-mails and faxes.

Quite often, their computers are programmed to spot certain words and pick up certain dialled numbers and addresses.

Joshua's example

That spying is the second oldest profession is indicated by the Old Testament no less.

GCHQ is the home of Britain's intelligence-gathering operations

When the children of Israel were about to enter the Promised Land, the Bible says, their leader took the precaution of trying to get intelligence about what lay ahead.

"Joshua son of Nun sent two spies out from Shittim secretly with orders to reconnoitre the country. The two men came to Jericho and went to the house of a prostitute named Rahab..."

Rahab, of course, was engaged in the oldest profession.

Joshua's example has been followed ever since.

In our time, the bugging of embassies has been especially popular. That is partly because diplomatic codes are so hard to break.

Peter Wright
Wright said bugging was rife in London in the 1950s and 60s

And that does not mean just the embassies of your enemies, though that has gone on a lot.

I remember being called out by Russian diplomats on a Saturday afternoon towards the end of the Cold War.

They displayed rather ancient looking microphones they had found embedded in plasterwork in one of their residences.

The shocked look they put on was a joy to behold.

Last year it was reported that Britain had bugged the High Commission (embassy) of Pakistan after the 11 September attacks. It was said that devices were put in under cover of building work.

The British said nothing. The Pakistanis had their suspicions.

French bugged

A former MI5 agent, Peter Wright, revealed in his book Spycatcher, which the British Government tried to have banned, that in the 1950s and 60s "we bugged and burgled our way across London at the state's behest, while pompous bowler-hatted civil servants in Whitehall pretended to look the other way".

Gentlemen do not read each other's mail
Henry L Stimson
Former US secretary of state
He said that Lancaster House, the venue for many a diplomatic discussion including the Rhodesia talks, had been wired for sound so that MI5 could listen into delegations in their private rooms.

Mr Wright also said that the communications of the French Embassy in London had been intercepted when Britain was trying to join the Common Market.

Secret unit

The most sensational revelations, though, came in a book published in 1931.

It was called The American Black Chamber and it was written by a brilliant and flamboyant American cryptographer named Herbert Yardley.

Mr Yardley had led a secret unit by this name which decoded diplomatic traffic from just after World War I until 1928 - when New York lawyer Henry L Stimson became secretary of state and was horrified to discover where a lot of his information was coming from.

He closed the Black Chamber down with the words: "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail."

Unfortunately, this put Mr Yardley out of a job, so to make some money he wrote his book.

It revealed that the US had broken Japanese ciphers and had, for example, found out what the Japanese bottom line was in a important naval conference in 1921, enabling the US to press an advantage.

But Mr Yardley also cheerfully spoke about attacking the British codes and accepted that the British were doing the same.

He ruefully reflected in the book about the dim prospects for American negotiators at future meetings: "How would America fare in the conference room without the Black Chamber? The Department of State still used its 16th century codes.

"I could see the rush of excitement in the British Admiralty cipher Bureau, as their skilful, experienced cryptographers prepared for the phalanx of American code clerks and their antiquated codes. I rather envied the British cryptographers."

The BBC's Frank Gardner
"The UN is one of the most tempting targets for spies"

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