Everybody Spies

July 9, 2013

You wouldn’t know it from the furor emanating from European capitals over the past week, but everybody spies.  And not only on enemies, but friends as well.  This evidently comes as a surprise to several of the United States’ trans-Atlantic allies, who have reacted angrily to claims that the U.S. targeted E.U. missions in both Washington and New York with electronic surveillance, apparently rather routinely.

An outraged French President Francois Hollande called such behaviour unacceptable “between partners and allies.”  Berlin accused the US of treating Germany “like a cold war enemy.”  Greece professed incomprehension, while Turkey vaguely promised some future “required reaction.”  The European Parliament voted to condemn surveillance of embassies and launch an inquiry into a number of US intelligence practices the details of which have been revealed over the past month by former NSA contractor turned hero/traitor Edward Snowden.

While European governments rushed to express their offense, observers of global politics rolled their eyes.  “Oh, that’s rich,” seemed to encapsulate the sense of many.  This sentiment was heard first in the US, but the uproar quickly prompted French media to publish details of the collection activities of their own country’s intelligence services, which were intercepting French citizens’ communications in a fashion similar to the U.S. PRISM program revealed by Snowden.  Those reports have provoked a minor scandal in France and underscored mumbled charges of hypocrisy.  France has also been labelled among the world’s most active perpetrators of industrial espionage.  Oh, and its government has historically displayed few qualms about spying on its own allies (in one humorous example from a U.K.-France summit in the 1990s, both sides were systematically updated during breaks between negotiating sessions on their counterparts’ next moves by their respective intelligence services).

Of course, France isn’t the only European government whose resentment of the surveillance program seems rather disingenuous.  Greece and Turkey were united in their condemnation of the US, but the two are no strangers to mutual claims of espionage, despite their NATO membership, which ostensibly makes them allies.  As details of the intelligence collection program emerged, U.S. President Barack Obama suggested that the practice is widespread: “Every intelligence service – not just ours, but every European intelligence service – is…seeking additional insight beyond what’s available through open sources.”

The most interesting element of many of the complaints heard from Europe was the notion that this behaviour is unacceptable between allies.  The implication is that such activity is not universally wrong, but somehow untoward when aimed at friends.  At least Greece’s public position that the surveillance was in violation of international law is defensible on principled grounds, although even the Greek Foreign Ministry’s statement expressed shock that the US would spy on “a friend and ally.”

These complaints presuppose a binary world plainly divided between friends and enemies.  Clearly, the E.U. is not an enemy of the United States.  Nor are its members.  Many of them are formal military allies of America.  But while U.S. interests are in concert with many European countries on a wide variety of issues, there are significant divergences, even with America’s strongest partners.  International relations are complex, and states simply don’t agree on all issues.  Allies might well vote together one day at the United Nations, and find themselves deeply divided the next day on an issue confronting the World Trade Organization.

Governments are charged with protecting their people and safeguarding national interests.  Governments go to war because of that mandate.  They undertake diplomacy because of that mandate.  They cajole, entice, persuade, pressure, and otherwise seek to advance their national will because of that mandate.  And sometimes, they spy on their allies.

European protestations over U.S. surveillance of its allies suggest that morality should govern decisions over intelligence operations.  But the limits of a state’s intelligence collection – against adversaries or allies alike – are not determined by any sort of moral code, but rather by available resources and practical capability.  If European intelligence services are not collecting against American officials, diplomats included, odds are that it isn’t an attempt to seek out the moral high ground, but because their capacity to spy is matched by a greater American ability to thwart such efforts.

There are two possible explanations for the righteous indignation spawned by these revelations in the capitals of America’s allies.  Either government officials are truly unaware of the operations of their own intelligence services, or the statements are simply part of the same espionage game as the surveillance itself.  In most cases, the latter explanation is more likely, although naïveté on the part of political figures cannot be ruled out, particularly where intelligence services operate with a great deal of freedom from political oversight.

Even if this issue was in fact one of morality, the counter-argument is that not seeking to gather information that could promote a country’s national interest would represent both a dereliction of a government’s duty and a greater immorality.  The relative merits of each of these arguments depends on one’s understanding of to whom a government is morally duty-bound first and foremost, its people or its allies.

Friendly relations with a country do not equate to absolute trust.  If they did, there would be no need for classification caveats prohibiting dissemination of certain classified information to foreign governments.  Those restrictions exist for the same reason that governments spy on allies: because there are important limits to how far governments extend trust, even to their allies.

The US surveillance program is not earth shattering.  Nor is it fundamentally different than programs other governments engage in, or would, if given the means to do so.  It is the by-product of a world in which governments are compelled to protect their countries’ interests, and where trust in the international arena has natural limits.

Everybody spies, and everybody should spy.  Even on allies.

John Amble is the Managing Editor of War on the Rocks.