Secret Agent Man, Redux

They won’t start talking until we put all our phones in the refrigerator. Dennis McNamara, of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, talking about sensitive negotiations.

A year or so ago I posted a blog about the risks of being infiltrated by spies.  I seem to have missed the point.  True enough, we humanitarians should do more about stopping NGO penetration by the Felix Leiters and Carrie Mathisons of the world. If we want to safeguard trust in our intentions, trust in our essential harmlessness, then we need to keep the spies out.

But that misses the point driven home, driven right into my breast pocket, by Edward Snowden.  The revelations about NSA spying make it clear, the spy is I.  It is no longer a question of keeping spooks-people out, it is a question of the degree to which they have  transformed us into spooks-people in.  The unwittingness of our role is of no relevance. Ditto for our pure hearts.  It is no longer about deliberately passing information back to spy agencies, it is about their routine extraction of sensitive information from our everyday work.

What to do given the lack of convenient refrigerators?  Negotiating access requires daily contact with armed groups, many of whom have so-called terrorist or similar status.  We must talk to them.  We must phone them to ask if it is safe to travel, safe to deliver care, safe to transport a wounded child.  Who needs a mole when our Nokias and Thurayas provide such an effective set of eyes and ears?

Decades ago I thought (briefly, very briefly) about working for the CIA.  I never thought I would be doing it for free.

7 thoughts on “Secret Agent Man, Redux”

  1. Thanks for the post Marc. I can’t help thinking that the NSA revelations have done irrevocable damage in this regard. As you say, who is to know if organisational phone lines and servers have been tapped? If millions of ordinary citizens in Spain, Germany, USA etc, are being monitored, one can assume that given the nature of humanitarian work, that it’s only a matter of time until employees find their way onto one of those lists. What’s perhaps more frightening is the powerlessness to do anything about it. If a stern phonecall with Obama is the only option available to European ‘superpowers’, what hope for the rest of us?

  2. Humanitarians have to get much more serious about encryption, surely. If we can be experts in practicing medicine with few resources, extending supply chains into the back of beyond, and making muddy water drinkable, perhaps we can do the same with finding ways to avoid being unwitting spooks. Maybe we need a bit more tradecraft in humanitarian work?

    1. We can certainly accept more responsibility in this regard. For instance, why isn’t it part of best practice guidelines to vet new employees more diligently? Or to have bans on hiring people who served in the military over the previous five years.

      Externally, why not call for governments, like the USG, to pass a law which makes it illegal for spy agencies to place people inside humanitarian NGOs. It may not stop the practice, but it’s something to negotiate with…

      1. Interesting. But is ex-military the single greatest occupational ‘red flag’ regarding espionage? What about the politicians? MSF distancing itself from Kouchner following his claim that the French government were obtaining information from MSF and MdM was a clear attempt to diminish suspicions.

        Again with David Miliband on Radio 4 this morning – Humphreys asked, ‘I know you’re no longer Foreign Secretary, but if you were…’ It would take some work to convince many beneficiaries that Miliband – given his strong history in politics – no longer has government ties.

        Central to this is the fact that the privileges granted to humanitarian organisations pose a strategic advantage to those with less than humanitarian objectives. Given that you cannot ‘copyright’ the act of humanitarianism, it seems that agencies are restricted to a reactive existence – military agency launches operations, humanitarian agencies have to change their field strategies and issue global press releases; Foreign Secretary makes comments re. value of agencies for intelligence gathering, humanitarianism have to distance themselves further…

        1. Agree completely on the risks posed by ex-political officials. Probably fine for development agencies, but it does not work for humanitarianism. That said, I doubt they pose much risk for spying in the way this blogpost highlights. As for Miliband, check out MSF’s Michiel Hofman’s piece:

  3. It is kind of glamorous to get back to exchanging sensitive information during a walk in the parc, and may lead us to more human interation, less emails in our boxes, and Idevices that actually work after having been cleaned up of all useless encryption softwares our in-house ITs stuffed them with.

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