In the dictionary, snooping is defined thus: “to investigate or look around furtively in an attempt to find out something, especially information about someone’s private affairs”. In common parlance, it is intelligence-gathering or spying by prying. Wire-taps are just a means for gathering information about a real or potential adversary or competitor. In a world where information is power, snooping is common and even friends are not exempted. The CIA was discovered to be listening in on German chancellor Angela Merkel, among others.
Ironically, when a departmental intelligence service was first mooted in the US, then secretary of state Henry Stimson dismissed it saying “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail”. But soon World War II was overhead and a dedicated intelligence service was set up. Obviously, Herr Hitler was not considered a gentleman.
Snooping on other nations is now considered a fairly honorable and glorified profession, with intelligence officers and spymasters projecting a certain cachet of adventure and power. However honourable it may be, spying is nevertheless illegal and even allies do not merit exemption. Take the case of Jonathan Pollard, who was held in 1987: while serving at the US Navy’s Center for Naval Analyses, he passed on classified information to Israel. Pollard is still in a US jail despite repeated Israeli entreaties. The lessons of history are clear. Spy or snoop by all means, but don’t get caught. The law is clear. You get caught, you get punished.
Technologically, we have come some way since close-quarters spying, like physically listening in. Wire-taps are often not needed. We now have standoff snooping. You can literally pluck information from the air. Remember the implicating conversation Gen Pervez Musharaff had with his generals from Beijing and how PM Atal Behari Vajpayee happily gave President Clinton the audio recording. This equipment is now available to private snoops also. Israeli businesspeople regularly visit India to hawk their wares.
Many modern corporations are now behemoths, often with interests and characteristics like states. That’s why corporate groups like Reliance and Essar maintain “intelligence” capabilities. They also provide gainful employment to retired intelligence officials. Hired as “security advisors”, they often reach into their former organisations to get ex-colleagues to pry for their corporate interests. In a free economic regime not dependent on the allocation powers of the state, and in a competitive environment, advantage is due to innovation and superior service. Hence knowledge is power. In a crony capitalist system, information is power. That’s why our companies invest more in garnering information than in pursuing knowledge.
Some years ago, the media obtained recordings that revealed that senior Tata Tea executives were in constant touch with the underground ULFA and were making payoffs for protection. Quite recently, Essar was found channelling money to Naxalites in Bastar to let them continue to excavate iron ore unhindered. Even more recently, we were treated to conversations Tata and RIL lobbyist Niira Radia was having with Delhi’s political and media elite. The airing of these recordings was considered to be to the advantage of Anil Ambani, who had adversarial relations with the corporate bosses concerned. ADAG officials and advisors, among them a former US embassy hand, had a hand in obtaining and disseminating these tapes.
Then there were the salacious Amar Singh recordings, full of details of money-making and private intimacies. This was considered the revenge of the empire.