Nothing surprises me more than politicians professing to be surprised that their phones have been tapped. In the world revealed to us by Edward Snowden almost a decade ago, no phone is beyond the reach of motivated eavesdroppers. This is not to say, however, that phone-tapping political opponents has lost its capacity to poison democracy. If those in power can get off after they are caught red-handed, the floodgates of authoritarianism open widely. Soon, what remains of our democratic checks and balances is washed away. This is why Greece’s own Watergate scandal, which has gradually come to light over the past few months, has a significance well beyond the borders of democracy’s supposed cradle.
To put the recent revelations in context, Greece has as proud a tradition of politically motivated phone-tapping as any other country. I still chuckle when I recall what happened in the early hours of a May morning in 2015 during my short stint as Greece’s finance minister. Soon after I had concluded a sensitive conversation with my friend Jeff Sachs, the phone rang. It was Jeff again, this time laughing uncontrollably.
“You will not believe this,” he said. “Five minutes after we hung up, I received a call from the National Security Council. They asked me if I thought you meant what you’d told me.” I had fully expected my phone had been tapped, but two things made Jeff’s news remarkable. First, the eavesdroppers not only had the capacity to instantly recognise that what I had said to Jeff was of real significance, but they must also have had an open line to America’s NSC. Second, they had no compunction whatsoever about revealing that they were tapping my phone!
I was, of course, neither the first nor the highest-ranking Greek politician to have been honoured with such attention. We now know that, back in 2008, the phones of the then-prime minister, his wife, half the cabinet and close to 100 government officials were tapped by US agencies. Nor was eavesdropping monopolised by US agencies. In 2015, operatives of EYP — the Greek intelligence agency — dropped into my ministerial office to check for bugs, and pointed out the window at two vans which, they said, belonged to the German Embassy and contained listening equipment trained at me and my team. A few months later, the Prime Minister I was serving under told me that the EYP’s head had been spreading the toxic lie that I was in cahoots with Wolfgang Schäuble (Germany’s then Finance Minister) to get Greece out of the eurozone.
Clearly, in view of such experiences, I was not at all surprised, let alone shocked, at the news that EYP has recently been eavesdropping on politicians and journalists. So, why am I branding this latest incident as Greece’s Watergate? Why do I go so far as to believe it poses a greater threat to democracy than Richard Nixon’s original?
The short answer is: because Nixon was forced to resign once it was revealed that he had endeavoured to cover up spying. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the current Greek Prime Minister, has in contrast succeeded in neutralising the democratic institutions set up to maintain a semblance of legality — before they neutralised him.
The sequence of events leading to the exposure of Greece’s Watergate scandal began in July 2019, immediately after Mr Mitsotakis won the last general election on behalf of New Democracy, our conservative party. One of the very first decrees he issued, as incoming Prime Minister, was one that gave his office direct control over and responsibility for EYP. “Why on earth is the PM taking over the supervision of EYP?”, I remember a parliamentary colleague asking me that very day. It was, indeed, a curious move.
Our trepidation only grew following two personnel choices. First, Mitsotakis appointed a nephew of his, Grigoris Dimitriadis, to oversee EYP on his behalf. Secondly, he chose as EYP’s new head Panagiotis Kontoleon, the CEO of the Greek franchise of the private security firm G4 — a man with no record of public service, and whose appointment Mitsotakis could only complete after amending the relevant law to remove the prerequisite that the EYP chief holds a postgraduate degree.
Given his concerted and very public efforts to take complete control of the state intelligence agency, something no other PM had ever done, it became impossible to shift blame to some other minister once the faeces hit the proverbial fan.
Of the more than 17,000 wiretaps that EYP admits it has placed during the last year alone, two cases are at the heart of the current scandal. The first is that of Thanasis Koukakis, an investigative journalist who dared look into Greek shipowners’ loans that had been illegally written off by the Bank of Piraeus (one of the banks that Greek taxpayers have had to repeatedly bailout). It turns out that Koukakis was one of EYP’s “subjects of interest”, an outrage that would have probably gone unnoticed without the second, higher profile, case.
It was this case that broke the camel’s back: an investigation begun by the European Parliament’s IT department accidentally revealed that Nikos Androulakis, an MEP belonging to PASOK (the formerly dominant party in Greek politics), was being phone-tapped by EYP. It was explosive news because, at the time his phone was tapped, Androulakis was contesting the leadership of PASOK — a contest that he, eventually, won. The significance of that contest cannot be understated, since its outcome mattered a great deal to Mitsotakis and his governing New Democracy party.
Since the middle of the pandemic, opinion polls have persistently suggested that the next election, which must take place by July 2023, will result in a hung parliament. While Mitsotakis’ New Democracy seemed likely to remain the largest party, it was not even close to an absolute majority. PASOK, in third place, was therefore positioned as kingmaker: whoever the party chose to side with would end up in government.
The stakes of PASOK’s leadership race suddenly seemed very high. Of the three main candidates, the one that would almost certainly choose to back New Democracy and Mitsotakis to form a government was Andreas Loverdos — an MP and former minister who had served gladly in New Democracy-PASOK coalition governments between 2011 and 2015. Every newspaper, radio and television station supporting Mitsotakis was rooting for Loverdos to beat Androulakis in the PASOK leadership primary. Is it any wonder that the revelation of EYP’s surveillance of Androulakis was big news? In a period during which the ruling party was rooting for Androulakis’s opponent, the nation’s spy agency — which ruling party’s leader and his nephew controlled and supervised to the full — was tapping Androulakis’ phone!
As if that were not sufficiently outrageous, the Prime Minister doubled down with a disgraceful reaction to the ensuing uproar. In a six hour-long parliamentary debate on the subject, the Mitsotakis repeatedly insisted that the wiretap on Androulakis was perfectly legal, even if it was politically disingenuous. When we pressed him on the legal and logical justification for tapping Androulakis’ phone, he referred vaguely to grounds of “national security” — claiming that such sensitive matters cannot be spoken about in an open parliamentary session. At that point, we — the leaders of the opposition parties — called his bluff and voted to convene a special parliamentary Select Committee, which would debate these “national security” grounds in confidence.
And so it was that, a few days later, a Select Committee convened. Among the summoned witnesses were, naturally, the two men Mitsotakis had appointed to run EYP: Dimitriadis and Kontoleon. Both appeared in front of the Committee and both, reading from the same invisible script, repeated the same mantra: “We cannot answer your questions because the information the Select Committee seeks is privileged.” After a few pointless and cacophonous sessions, lacking any power to arrest witnesses for contempt of Parliament, the Committee disbanded and the case was closed.
And here’s the rub. Politicians, like corporations and athletes, often try out illegitimate practices to tilt the playground in their favour. In our surveillance society — in which our every move, thought or click is turned into a valuable commodity — phone-tapping is, unfortunately, commonplace. However, when a President or a Prime Minister seeks direct control over the nation’s spooks in order to press them, and their gadgets, into spying on opponents, they cross a Rubicon. If a leader is caught red-handed, our democratic institutions may be judged on whether they can neutralise him. In the case of Watergate, it was hard to unveil Nixon’s complicity, but the moment the President’s involvement was established, he was gone. In the case of Greece’s Watergate, our parliamentary sovereignty was jettisoned so that the guilty PM could stay put. In this sense, Greece’s Watergate bodes more ill for democracy than America’s original.
The reader may, understandably, ask: why should this defeat of Greece’s parliamentary democracy, however sad it may be, matter in the grander scheme of things? Because, my dear reader, you should never underestimate Greece’s capacity to be the harbinger of terrible developments that will come to your shores before you know it. Can you recall where the Cold War began? Not in the streets of Berlin in 1945, but in the streets of Athens in December 1944! Do you remember where the eurozone crisis began? Not in Italy or Spain or France, but in Greece in 2010! For some reason I am not privy to, my country has a proven record of giving birth not only to some important values, like democracy, but also to existential threats to Western civilisation. Which is why the ever-complacent West should be paying attention as our Greek Watergate scandal unfolds.