Nosy neighbours


Pope Francis – accustomed to being watched at all times by a higher power

WHAT began as electrifying evidence of international espionage on America’s part is beginning to look like nothing more than plain nosiness.

An Italian news magazine reported this week that the US National Security Agency spied on the Vatican in the time leading up to the election of Pope Francis last March.

The NSA reportedly bugged the phones of bishops and cardinals before the conclave, looking for information under four headings: leadership intentions, threats to financial system, foreign policy objectives, and human rights. The agency denies it.

Of course the Vatican is full of secrets – Fatima and what have you – and who wouldn’t fancy rummaging around in there to see what really goes on? But “foreign policy objectives”? “Threats to financial system”? Would it not be a lot more instructive for the US to study those subjects closer to home?

The NSA begins to come across as a crabbed, curtain-twitching busybody, snooping around in Pope Francis’s businesses for no better reason than that it can’t stand not knowing what everyone else is up to. There’s one of these pests in every community; America is ours.

Secretary of State John Kerry hinted at this on Thursday, saying much of the surveillance was being done on “automatic pilot, because the technology is there and the ability is there”. In other words, they’re listening not for the sake of discovering anything, but because they can.

The Vatican didn’t mind in the least, as it happens. Spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi was quoted as saying the Holy See was not aware of anything about it. “In any case,” he added dismissively, “we have no concerns about it.”

Of course, citizens of Vatican City believe we are all being watched, all the time, by an entity even more powerful than the US government, which might explain the sang-froid.

Meanwhile, a 13-year-old Waterford schoolboy launched his second technology firm at this week’s Dublin Web Summit. Jordan Casey noticed that one of his teachers recorded vital information about students the old-fashioned way, in a book.

“If she lost that book all the information for the entire year was gone,” said Jordan. So he created a web-based application enabling teachers to store the data in the cloud.

Presumably Jordan is aware of this week’s news that the NSA has infiltrated the cloud. But maybe he reasons that it’s unlikely Washington would be interested in the comings and goings of a provincial Irish schoolteacher with all the appearance of power and no actual power… Someone like Enda Kenny, for instance.

Like the Vatican, Kenny has been noticeably unruffled at the prospect of being spied on. Maybe he has a proper sense of his own significance, and doesn’t believe the NSA would want to know what he’s nattering about on his Nokia. Or maybe he believes he can’t do anything about America’s actions, much as his predecessor apparently couldn’t do anything about rendition flights through Shannon, for instance.

But while Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore has grumbled about “friends not bugging friends”, Kenny has been positively docile. He might at least try to give the impression that he minds, one way or another. It would look better.

Kenny has picked only one good fight so far, with the Vatican. But battling bishops quickly pales into insignificance when you’ve allowed yourself to be seen, increasingly, as a pawn.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 3 November 2013