Protecting our state communications from
espionage & the unfortunate Mr Sikorski

by Dorchester

We have it from no less an authority than Sun Tzu that:

“Secret operations are essential in war; upon them the army relies to make its every move”

And history is replete with tales of victory gained, or denied, by communications. The heroic fate of Nelson was signalled from Portsmouth to London by a chain of lighthouses; just this month was a carrier pigeon found in a chimney, and we were regaled last week with the story of Princess Catherine’s gran who was an operator employed to break Enigma, that Axis code, at Bletchley Park. The Battle of Britain led into the North Atlantic campaign, and in the lean years the defeat of Hitler was no foregone conclusion. Had it not been for work done at Bletchley Park, the supply lines from Quebec and Halifax would have been shredded. But it is not without Polish help that Enigma was finally revealed1, as our Polish friends are proud to remark2.

It would seem that wars are collaborative affairs, and someone, somewhere in the Polish government recognises the truism of Sun Tzu.

That is why the recent revelations3,4 of two conversations between a Polish Cabinet member and a high-placed private citizen are cause for concern. By now readers will have read the remarks of the unfortunate Mr Sikorski; he was (apparently) recorded while he spoke with a Mr Rostowski, who was at the time a former Cabinet colleague. The emphasis in the press has been thus far on the content of his intemperate speech. Certainly, wanton utterance is not to be welcomed into the highest levels of state, but of greater concern is the mechanism by which the record was made: how was the tape obtained?

It is important to note that Mr Sikorski is the Polish Foreign Minister and that Poland is a NATO ally, and this is where my attention has been caught.

We can surmise, because the recipient of the communication was an ostensibly private citizen, that the communication (henceforth ‘it’, from S to R) took place over an open line (if we exclude face-to-face exchange). Since two members of the Polish government are involved in these two conversations, and which were reported by one source, Occam’s razor would have us believe that the Polish government is in some way the target of espionage. If we hypothesise so, several questions as to the weakness of the conduit now arise:

  1. where was it intercepted?
  2. were R and S both located in Poland?
  3. did S use his mobile phone or a static government phone?
  4. did R use his mobile phone or his office or home land line?
  5. were both S and R serviced by the same telecoms company?
  6. was the telecoms company of each foreign or domestic?
  7. was it done in optics, hardware or software?
  8. was it done by a lineman, clerk, extramural spy or some other agent?
  9. was it done surreptitiously, with a compromised switch?
  10. ditto, with a compromised phone?
  11. can we trust the inquirer and the inquiry?

You may be able to ask yourself several other questions besides. The important idea is that the government of a NATO ally has had their communication system compromised, both in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and in the Office of the Prime Minister: these 11 questions must be asked two times.

But this line of questions is not at an end. Late last year, communications between the Ambassador to the Ukraine of the United States and Victoria Nuland, a Presidential appointee to the US State Department, were revealed5, to the great embarrassment of the persons involved and the government of the most technologically advanced nation on Earth (also a NATO ally). It appears that at least one party was located in the Ukraine.

Again, early this year, we read detailed reports of a conversation between Baroness Ashton and her Estonian counterpart, Urmas Paet6. This time the endpoints were ostensibly in Brussels and Tallinn.

We can observe at least two commonalities to these threads:

  • they all occurred in “Eastern Europe”, in countries which are near to Russia
  • they all occurred in NATO allies

Another curiosity occurred in Turkey this year, a short time after votes were taken not to interfere in Syria, in which a record was made of a Cabinet-level discussion that seemed to indicate plans for nefarious activities. The two commonalities can be seen in the Turkish affair, although we suspect but are not told that this was face-to-face communication, and so cannot exclude a mole in the Turkish government.

We should not be too hasty to group these incidents together; all or part may be independent events. The spies may have had vastly different goals, or alternately, they may have acted in concert, or the actions were performed by one and the same agency. It is difficult to see the hand of Russia in this Sikorski leak, but we ought not to exclude, at first cut, another piece of advice, this time from the latin:

“divide et impera”

My attention has been caught, repeatedly over the last half year, because we appear to be in a state of denial or suspended animation about this very real weakness, and the situation of our Foreign Affairs can be described as somewhere between muddy and swampy.

I close with a pedestrian English truism that probably was said by Sun Tzu, albeit in more poetic language,

“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

Here’s hoping that Mr Sikorski decodes this message.

  1. Wesolkowski, S. “The invention of Enigma and how the Polish broke it before the start of World War II” (PDF) 2001 IEEE Conference on the History of Telecommunications (and bibliography)
  2. 9 Oct 2012 “‘Bletchley Park doesn’t deserve all the code-cracking credit’: Poles claim they worked out Enigma code FIRST” (Daily Mail)
  3., 23 Jun 2014: “EXCLUSIVE TRANSLATION: ‘Cameron f*** it up’ – Leaked tapes shed light on difficult relationship between London and Warsaw
  5. Guardian, 5 Mar 2014: “Ukraine crisis: bugged call reveals conspiracy theory about Kiev snipers” [Ashton-Paet]
  6., 7 Feb 2014: “Ukraine crisis: Transcript of leaked Nuland-Pyatt call