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GCHQ Sent Undercover Spook to Climate Summits to Gain Upper Hand in Negotiations

In Archive, Environment, Espionage, GCHQ, MI6, NSA, NSA Files, Surveillance on November 4, 2014 at 1:24 AM



An undercover employee of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) was embedded in the British delegation when world leaders assembled at the 2010 UN Climate Change Summit in Cancún, Mexico. The task of the so-called Government Communications Officer was to provide a human link between the UK’s Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) organisation and its government “customers”. It is by means of such liaisons that intelligence about the negotiation strategies of other countries, intercepted by GCHQ by hacking into computers or secretly collected from fiber optical cables, reach the right politicians and officials at the right time. The goal: to ensure the upper hand in negotiations by knowing the positions of their opponents.

The presence of a GCHQ employee in the British delegation is described in a 23-page PowerPoint presentation titled “Supporting HMG’s (Her Majesty’s Government) Climate Change Ambitions,” which Dagbladet Information publishes today. It is part of a number of classified GCHQ documents leaked by Edward Snowden, to which Dagbladet Information has had access.

The documents reveal British espionage targeting international climate change negotiations to an extent which surpasses what is currently known about climate espionage by the NSA. Earlier this year Dagbladet Information uncovered how the NSA targeted the 2009 fifteenth annual Conferences of the Parties (COP15) in Copenhagen. Both nations, it seems, used signals intelligence to gain advantages during highly important political negotiations. In other words, they used powers in a dramatically different fashion from which they were being advertised; these powers are generally described as being necessary in the fight against terrorism and imminent threats to national security.

GCHQ’s spying against UN international climate negotiations began long before the Cancún summit. According to the PowerPoint presentation, climate change became a “serious intelligence priority” for GCHQ in 2007.

The climate-related espionage was handled by the Transnational Strategic Issues section of the GCHQ. Among other things, the section made use of GCHQ’s access to fiber cables under the so-called Mastering the Internet program. According to GCHQ documents from 2010, the service has access to fiber cables carrying 25 pct of the world’s internet traffic across British territory. Out of this, it can only monitor a certain part at a time. Its access has been obtained through partnerships with British telecommunications companies, and collection from this program in the second quarter of 2009 resulted in six climate-related so-called End Product Reports, which in a GCHQ context stands for final reports. In other words, the raw data collected from fiber cables seems to have provided good climate-related intelligence in the run-up to COP15.  The statistical reports also show the GCHQ receiving climate-related intelligence from its close collaboration partners of the so-called Five Eyes Alliance (US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia), and also from the monitoring of satelite communication.

But in 2009, GCHQ did not limit itself to passively collecting climate-related intelligence from data flowing through fiber optic cables or from the airwaves. It also used targeted hacking operations or Computer/Network/Exploitation (CNE) described as a means of getting “into the heart of complex, classified networks.” According to the document, GCHQ aims to compromise diplomatic, military and research networks in order to obtain detailed, privileged knowledge of a specific targets’ future plans: “We know exactly what they’re going to say before they say it,” explains the document.

One such CNE operation targeted the 2009 G20 summit in London. As reported by the Guardian, GCHQ hacked into delegates’ BlackBerry mobile phones in order to monitor their e-mails and calls, and supplied 45 analysts with real-time data about who called whom at the summit. GCHQ also set up internet cafés for delegates with key logging software installed, which enabled GCHQ to secretly gather e-mail addresses, passwords and other sensitive information from the delegates. What has not previously been reported, however, is that this method was used, inter alia, to provide intelligence about the upcoming climate negotiations. Dagbladet Information has had access to GCHQ documents describing the London G20 operation. They list the same GCHQ employee who coordinated the G20 operation as the author of the “Supporting HMG’s Climate Change Ambitions” presentation, which sums up GCHQ’s climate-related efforts prior to and during the Cancún summit.

Describing the effectiveness of the G20 operation, the same GCHQ employee describes the way in which the rigged internet cafés enabled “attacks providing valuable insights to UK reps prior to meetings informing other government stance on climate change etc.”. The author of the same document refers to these meetings as “climate change summits,” likely a reference to the Copenhagen COP15 Summit later the same year and other preparatory meetings.

Another document shows the GCHQ using the rigged G20 internet cafés to obtain information yielding “sustained intelligence options”, ie. passwords and information that could secure future access to delegates’ email accounts. In other words, the GCHQ used the G20 meeting on British soil not only to launch attacks on visiting diplomats, negotiators and politicians in order to immediately access their e-mail accounts and other communication, but also to be able to do so during the upcoming climate change negotiations.

Seventeen of the world’s largest economies created a special forum focusing on climate policy, the so-called Major Economies Forum on Climate Change (MEF). They met in Paris in May 2009 to establish common ground before the Copenhagen summit in December. Among the participating nations were the US, China, Russia, and the EU. The UK too joined the Paris meeting, and in order to gain knowledge about the other parties’ views on the negotiations, the British employed the GCHQ. Presumably, most of its intelligence collection took place from the Cheltenham headquarters. But according to a PowerPoint presentation on GCHQ’s climate-related espionage, the negotations in Paris were also the first occasion at which it deployed a Government Communications Officer (GCO).

It seems the Communications Officer was there to distribute intelligence among the British delegates at the conference. Richard J. Aldrich, professor of International Security at the University of Warwick and one of the world’s leading experts on GCHQ, explains to Information that GCHQ’s effort at international negotations are often similar to “a military operation” at which one must “act in real time” – unlike the work related to the ongoing monitoring of countries, persons and topics.

“Not only do you have to collect the information in real time,” says Aldrich, “you also have to analyze it, and it’s only valuable if you get it to your customers in real time.” Aldrich stresses that the ambition is to deliver the intelligence to customers “who may physically be in the negotiations when they are receiving the information about the opponents negotiation positions.”

It would seem that the first deployment of a liaison officer was not entirely successful. “Some lessons learned!” concludes the PowerPoint presentation. Nonetheless, the idea seems to have been promising enough that the GCHQ deployed a GCO once again for the decisive negotiations in Copenhagen in December 2009, and at a COP summit for the first time.

Dagbladet Information has previously revealed that GCHQ’s American partners in the NSA spoke of their plans to spy against the COP15 in Copenhagen as a given. Danish officials told Dagbladet Information that they did not consider the risk of espionage and exchanged unencrypted emails with confidential information during the negotiations. If one of these messages passed through one of the network access points controlled by GCHQ, it may have been collected by the Brits and ended up in intelligence reports distributed among British delegates.

In the end, the COP15 failed to bring together the developed and developing countries in a binding agreement. “Copenhagen or bust (it bust!)” notes the PowerPoint presentation. But for the GCHQ the summit went according to plan: “Our first COP climate change GCO deployment …a success”.

While the presentation offers limited details about climate espionage prior to the 2010 COP16 conference in Cancún, it provides insight into which capabilities might have been used in Copenhagen and at the previous meetings.

At the 16th summit in Cancún (COP16), world leaders were to bring the UN climate negotiations back on track after the historic failure in Copenhagen. In preparation for the event, GCHQ had provided its liaison with a “suitable cover within UK delegation”, and “kit, rooms, passes, delegate lists.”

The recipients of the COP16 intelligence, in the GCHQ terminology used in the presentation “customers”, included “No. 10 (The Prime Minister’s Office) and Cabinet Office” and the Department of Energy and Climate Change. According to the presentation, the role of GHCQ was to provide intelligence on what “governments want,” “who is aligning with who” and which “red lines” existed. In other words: the limits to which negotiations could go. Of particular importance to GCHQ’s “customers,” and highlighted in the presentation, is whether delegates are “reporting back and getting fresh instructions?”  – And, if so, “What are they?”

In order to answer these questions, it seems GCHQ got help from other parts of the British intelligence apparatus. According to the presentation, it coordinated “with other teams and SIS,” also known as MI6, the British foreign intelligence body, which collects intelligence abroad by means of human assets, and increasingly assist GCHQ with, for example, the installment of listening devices.

It is not clear from the documents seen by Dagbladet Information in what way GCHQ continues its climate-related espionage after the 2010 Cancún Summit. But according to the PowerPoint presentation, which is dated early 2011, the GCHQ plans to “continue to support negotiations.” A slide titled “The Future” asks “How are South Africa approaching COP17” and “Who is backing Qatar and South Korea in their bids for COP18?”


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