Did NSA spying give the US an edge at the Copenhagen climate conference?

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Audio Transcript:

Carol Hills: The latest NSA targets to be revealed by the Snowden archive might surprise you: Participants in the UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen in 2009. The World’s environment editor, Peter Thomson, was at that high-stakes conference, and Peter, what do we know about NSA spying on conference participants?

Thomson: Well, I might know now why my cellphone and my computer were behaving so strangely when I was in that conference hall. But of course, seriously, this latest revelation comes to us from a joint reporting project between Huffington Post, here in the US, and a Danish newspaper called Information, which says it got a top secret NSA briefing paper on the negotiations from Edward Snowden. They've published that document. It’s very short, it’s barely more than a page, and it’s dated the opening day of the conference, which was December 7th, 2009. And frankly, most of it reads a lot like something you or I might have read in a newspaper before the summit, kind of summarizing the basic issues and conflicts. But there are two short paragraphs at the end of the document that are marked “TS”—for Top Secret—and “SI”—for Signal Intelligence, which means electronic monitoring. And these give us a little insight into the activities of the NSA itself.

Hills: Well, who were they spying on at the conference?

Thomson: Well, it seems that they were spying on China, and probably Denmark itself. The first graph refers to a report on China’s efforts to coordinate its negotiating position with India. China, of course, has always been the US’s biggest adversary in these climate negotiations, going back to the beginning. It also refers to details on a secret proposal by Denmark, which was the host country, to launch a so-called “rescue plan” in case the negotiations started to go off the rails. That tells us that the NSA probably gained access to those private conversations about those plans. That paragraph of the NSA document also says that NSA analysts, along with second party partners, would continue to provide updates throughout the conference. “Second party partners” is NSA speak for other countries who’s intelligence services the US was working with, so that makes it clear that the US wasn't alone in this spying operation.

Hills: What about that second top secret paragraph you mentioned?

Thomson: Well, the second top secret paragraph is the last one in the document. It ends by stating that “signal intelligence will undoubtedly play a significant role in keeping our negotiators as well informed as possible throughout the two week event”, which of course, basically means the NSA will continue to try to spy on other nations as the conference got underway.

Hills: So any evidence that any of that influenced the outcome of the Copenhagen conference, if we believe this, then we think that the major parties most of the US knew what any other party was going to bring to the table?

Thomson: Well, it’s really hard to know, Carol. Of course, there were very high hopes going into this conference of a breakthrough treaty on climate change after so long, but in reality, it was always going to be really difficult to reach a significant agreement, and ultimately, the conference failed to do anything really big. The report in the Danish paper quotes some Danish officials as suggesting the NSA info may have influenced the US’s negotiating strategy, but it’s almost impossible to know to know whether it really affected the outcome. One does have to wonder about one thing though: The whole meeting came down to a last minute agreement between the US, China, and a bunch of other countries that only came about when President Obama basically barged into a private meeting between China and those other countries. I’m not sure it’s ever been explained how the US learned about that meeting, so it is possible that the NSA spying tipped them off, and if that is the case, then the spying operation may well have profoundly affected the outcome.

Hills: What about the future of climate talks, given this revelation?

Thomson: Well, you know, trust is the basic component of all these big international negotiations, and I think it’s probably assumed, countries know that they’re spying on each other, but they want to be able to say they’re not. In this case, the US can no longer say they didn't, and so rebuilding that trust is going to be extremely difficult, as we've heard with all the other NSA revelations. So going forward, that’s going to be an even bigger challenge than before.

Hills: The World’s environment editor, Peter Thomson. Thanks so much.

Thomson: Thank you, Carol.