"All history teaches us that today's allies are tomorrow's rivals." John le Carré
With the French saying they are shocked—shocked!—to discover that America is spying on them, and the long-monitored German chancellor, Angela Merkel, reportedly in a state of outrage, this may be a good time to explain why it is considered so necessary. Why monitoring "foreign-leadership intentions" is a "hardy perennial" in U.S. espionage practice, as National Intelligence Director James Clapper put it during congressional hearings this week.And why most of what is done today, one way or another, is likely to go on.
Granted, sentiment is rising in Congress to curtail the surveillance leviathan that the National Security Agency has become. Changes will almost certainly be made. A tough bill that would severely rein in the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' electronic communications, cosponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., is gaining strange but powerful bedfellows in support, including the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union. Among the 80 cosponsors of the USA Freedom Act are some lawmakers who were NSA supporters as recently as August. At least eight of them voted against a narrowly defeated bill sponsored by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., that would have effectively defunded Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, which permits these collection practices.
Even Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., hitherto a fierce NSA defender, criticized the monitoring of Merkel's cell phone, and Feinstein's milder rival bill, which would preserve most NSA data collection, faces a tougher fight against the Leahy-Sensenbrenner version than it did only a few months ago.
Nonetheless, the reason America spies on generally friendly foreign leaders is simple and compelling. France, Germany, and many other countries may be U.S. allies, some closer than others, but they do not entirely share common interests with the U.S. They make, to varying degrees, different assessments of the strategic threats from Iran, China, and even Islamist terrorists, whom since 9/11 the Americans have tended to see as a wartime enemy but Europeans tend to view more as a crime-enforcement problem. That latter difference of approach alone—the Europeans are considered less aggressive in tracking terrorists—is reason to think these allies are not telling us everything they know. It is also reason to use every method available, including espionage, to determine what they do know.
Beneath the surface, Germany and the United States have also been in a state of constant tension over the future of the world economy, with President Obama regularly pressuring Merkel to adopt pro-stimulus policies at recent G-20 meetings. In private, German officials have fulminated over Obama's interference. The two nations often contend more than they coordinate over these policies.
This difference in gauging threat levels is true as well of another close U.S. ally, Israel. Recall that an American, Jonathan Pollard, has been serving a life sentence since 1987 for spying on America for the Israelis. Israel, with good reason, is worried that the United States does not see the threat from the Palestinians or other regional forces in the same way the Israeli government does, and it wants to keep tabs.
No country is in fact immune from American spying, excepting only Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, four English-speaking countries with which Washington established the "Five Eyes" pact to share intel and not spy on each other, a rather quaint "gentleman's agreement" dating to 1946 (which may or may not be always observed).
The history of U.S.-French relations is illustrative of why spying between longtime allies persists. In contrast to a decade ago, when France was seen as the recalcitrant outlier leading up to the Iraq invasion, relations between the two countries are very close, including a common front on Iran, Libya, and Syria. But despite fitful efforts to bring France into the Five Eyes pact, neither Paris nor Washington seems eager to give up its right to spy on the other. The French have long been known to conduct industrial espionage.
"Any world leader who expresses shock at being spied on should immediately fall under suspicion by his or her own people for being dangerously naive," says John Arquilla, an intelligence expert at the Naval Postgraduate School.
Nonetheless, it's one thing to conduct such espionage covertly. It's quite another to embarrass one's allies by having it exposed, opening leaders such as Merkel to domestic political criticism and forcing the French government to use terms like "unacceptable" and "shocking" to distance itself from the damage done by leaker Edward Snowden, who has exposed these formerly secret practices as more intrusive than even intelligence experts knew. "It's a question of scope, and it's a question of trust," says a European diplomat in one of the countries affected, although he indicated that crucial transatlantic cooperation on issues such as Syria, Iran, and nonproliferation is unlikely to be affected.
The key, congressional leaders now say, is to find what House Speaker John Boehner called the "right balance" between keeping the president and senior officials in the know and spying in such a blanket fashion that it riles allied leaders, because "clearly we're imbalanced," the speaker said. What upsets the Europeans is similar to what distresses Sensenbrenner and other former congressional defenders of the NSA: The surveillance appears to be all-encompassing rather than tailored to specific national security issues or investigations.
Feinstein said neither she nor Obama was aware the NSA was collecting the communications of Merkel and other allied leaders, in another blow to the agency's carte blanche powers. Indeed, intelligence professionals now admit that one of their biggest mistakes was not documenting how aggressive the surveillance state had become—which might have lessened the shock of the Snowden revelations.
So the NSA may be reined in. But one way or another, the spying will go on.
This article appears in the November 2, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as Why We Spy.