Spies Like Us: Friends Always Spy on Friends

NSA spying on U.S. allies is impolite, but it’s not a scandal

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

Nearly a century ago, long before the National Security Agency existed, there was the Black Chamber. Founded after World War I, the New York City–based office — formally called the Cipher Bureau and disguised as a commercial company — existed to crack the communications codes of foreign governments. The bureau closed in 1929, a decision Secretary of State Henry Stimson later justified with the quaint declaration: “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”

More than 80 years later, that warning is haunting President Obama. New revelations from fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden have exposed extensive U.S. surveillance on overseas allies, including a program that targeted 35 foreign leaders, even tapping German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone. Not very gentlemanly at all.

That has fueled a push in Congress to rein in the NSA. An infuriated Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman — often a defender of the NSA — announced “a major review” of all U.S. intelligence operations. “The reports are very disturbing,” Republican Senator Susan Collins told ABC News. “Friends don’t spy on friends.”

(MORE: NSA Defender Feinstein Blasts Spying on Allies)

Yes, they do. The latest NSA flap may be less a story about a spy agency run amok than a peek into a world where for political leaders, the walls (and phones, tablets and laptops) always have ears. “All big countries use espionage, and some of the countries that are complaining spy on the U.S.,” says James Andrew Lewis, a former American diplomat now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It’s not that countries think their friends are plotting against them; their aim is to gain insights into coming policy shifts or learn tidbits about third-party rivals.

Consider the now forgotten story of Echelon. In 2000, European leaders raged at reports that the U.S. was covertly gathering data on the continent’s economic activity. A report commissioned by the European Parliament condemned the U.S.’s activities. But in the game of foreign surveillance, there are few clean hands. In 2004 a former British Cabinet minister alleged that U.K. agents had bugged the office of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. An official document leaked to a British newspaper in 2009 showed that the U.K. was a high-priority espionage target for 20 countries — including chums like France and Germany.

America too is a routine target of its allies. At a 2009 NATO summit in France, Obama’s aides ditched their BlackBerrys, presumably for fear of eavesdropping. In 2010, National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair proposed an espionage cease-fire with the nosy French on the grounds that the two countries were wasting valuable counterintelligence assets dueling each other that were better applied to nations like China and Russia. (The White House shot down the idea.)

(MORE: NSA Official: NATO Allies Helped Collect European Phone Records)

After French officials railed at a report that the NSA had scooped up millions of phone-call records from their country, France’s former top intelligence official Bernard Squarcini scolded them. “I am amazed by such disconcerting naiveté,” Squarcini told Le Figaro. “The French intelligence services know full well that all countries, whether or not they are allies in the fight against terrorism, spy on each other all the time.” (Further muddying the morality, U.S. officials insist that France and Spain collected the data themselves and passed it along to the NSA.)

The bugging of foreign leaders has had particular power because it seems so personal. Obama has befriended Merkel, for example, so the snooping on her cellphone carries a whiff of betrayal. Which is why Obama is reportedly weighing a ban on tapping friendly heads of state.

Intelligence insiders say that would amount to unilateral disarmament by the U.S. “Let’s be honest — we eavesdrop too. Everyone is listening to everyone else,” former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told France Info radio. If the NSA earns special scorn, he added, it’s because “we don’t have the same means as the United States — which makes us jealous.”

MORE: An Angry Europe Faces Up to U.S. Spying and the War on Terrorism’s Legacy

11 comments
relcontrario
relcontrario

Has anyone noticed that TIME allows no comments on their decades old whitewash of the JFK assassination?  Amazing!  

TIME is up to its nostrils with the CIA on this.

nofail
nofail

Were you aware that the world was built a shadow ? It is really not a fair future. So citizens have children, kids do are simple and positive. Bad news, they are born in a too big too fail finance world and in a forever cold war sequel, the contrary of childhood. So our values were dillusions, what are the spies' ? The spymasters call us naives, that we should have tracked the right news since the start. US, their allies and their direct opponents were and are over-resilient this way. Obama, no he cant, it is unsound that he could.

joehonick@gmail.com
joehonick@gmail.com

What our European friends and elsewhere are most ticked off about is that this whole naïve colloquy has forced into the open the reality that such so called spying is a universal practice as a matter of both necessity and planning....and they are all doing something they wanted to raise hell with us about.  The main questions are:

1.  What if we did not do this spying?

2.  Why is Snowden so quiet about what he must know of the Russian spy operations as if they're just fine?

3.  What role does Greenwald really play and is he innocent of any collaboration in lawbreaking?

4.  Who is handling the obviously professional press relations for Snowden and who is paying the tab? Given that the firm Ketchum has collected a reported $23 million shilling for Putin, do they also do a pro bono for Snowden?

5.  Who is Snowden's publishing agent as a book must be in the rapid stages of development that should make Snowden quite wealthy?

6.  Finally, why are all the lefty media only wound up about US intel efforts but completely ignoring not only those of all those other countries, the massive rights deprivation in Arab countries and other activities destroying the lives of tens of thousands in Syria alone whose neighbors seem oblivious?

And those are just the openers that doubtless will be attacked.

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

It's an irony, but spying on friends is the best way to keep them honest. Without spying policy makers will stumble on the most trivial decisions. The art of diplomacy is telling lies in polite words. The job of spies is to uncover the truth even if the means are impolite. Sure, gentlemen don't read each other mail - not to say a gentlewoman personal communications - but then, politics is not a proper job for gentlemen. If Henry Stimson could reduce himself into reading some letters obtain by spy craft, maybe he'd have been a better adviser to FDR during the negotiations with Japan, prior to Pearl Harbor. He didn't, and it was pure stupidity.

When Time/ Observer/ Stern/ Le Mond or any other media journalists are invited to share secret information from an "off record" source, they know perfectly well it's coming thanks to the espionage apparatus. Still, no one ever said, No, thank you, it was unlawfully obtained. So why should Obama forego gaining insights into his co-opetition partners? Heads of intelligence services are very careful not to be specific about the sources and haw the info was collected and transmitted, so that their political masters can deny accusation with straight face. It's a game with time honored practices that should not unduly stir the general public opinion, nor interfere with anyone right to pursue happiness in a state of total bliss.

jmac
jmac

The New York Times says we have an agreement with four other countries not to spy on them, and vice-versa that's call The Five Eyes - Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.   Maybe we don't want Germany as a sixth eye.   

Adam_Smith
Adam_Smith

Some friendly heads of state probably did think that in light of their exalted status that they, at least, would be off limits. For now they probably are although it would be anyone's guess how long that will last. Meanwhile most other friendly government officials, and of course ordinary citizens, will remain fair game. Major powers, despite professions of fealty to democratic principle. simply do not have government of or by the people. Nobody attains high office in any of them without first being accepted into the governing class and the top tier of that autocracy holds itself above the law that applies to the rest of us.


destor23
destor23

Of course it's a scandal, Michael.


If this is true: "(Further muddying the morality, U.S. officials insist that France and Spain collected the data themselves and passed it along to the NSA.)" then don't you think there is some quid pro quo?  How much data collected by our agencies is handed over to France and Spain when they ask for it?

Instead of waving your hands at this, do your job and investigate.

commentonitall
commentonitall

Let'snot kid ourselves, everyone does it.  Before these leaks I figured the Government was already doing this.  We just happened to get caught with the hand in the cookie jar.

wandmdave
wandmdave

If the NSA earns special scorn "we don’t have the same means as the United States — which makes us jealous."

Kudos to that guy for speaking truth.

joukot
joukot

@jmac That is funny. Contemporary Germany may be the most democratic of those countries.