Why America Spies on Its Friends

France, Germany, and many other countries may be U.S. allies, some closer than others. But their interests don’t necessarily match ours.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 29: A member of CodePink protests as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (C) takes his seat prior to a hearing before the House (Select) Intelligence Committee October 29, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on "Potential Changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)." 
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Michael Hirsh
Oct. 31, 2013, 5 p.m.

“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.