Public Views of Intelligence Collection: The Implications for International Politics

July 25, 2013

Among everyday Americans, most of the controversy generated by the Snowden leaks relates to civil liberties at home.  However, if one reads comment threads and online discussions of the eavesdropping revelations, there is another set of arguments promulgated by many opponents of the NSA’s activities, especially non-Americans.

Of course, as John Amble noted on this site a couple weeks ago, everybody spies.  The French Interior Minister can spout off all he wants at the American Embassy’s 4th of July party, but it’s a fact that cannot be gainsaid and it is likely to continue.  After all, these European nations have interests that they need to pursue and that require sound decision-making: the kind of decision-making that is underpinned by intelligence.  We can expect government officials to be hypocritical about it because getting caught spying is not the done thing.  Heck, the United States is hypocritical about this too.  In John Amble’s words, “everybody should spy.” [emphasis added]

However, in the immortal words of Arlo Guthrie ten minutes into his classic song “Alice’s Restaurant,” “but that’s not what I came to tell you about.”

While the national security elites abroad understand how the game is played, many ordinary people in the affected countries not only don’t care how the game is played, but they think the game itself is fundamentally illegitimate.  These are not ministers, these are voters.  There is not a whiff of hypocrisy about them.  They forthrightly reject the grubby realpolitik of the Americans and their own governments, though, admittedly, they cut more slack for their own governments.

I thought it might be useful to tease out some of these arguments as they appear in public discussions among non-elites.  Collectively they pose a deeply rooted and potentially important challenge to the international realism-based culture of intelligence.

There does seem to be a general agreement among commentators that intelligence collection against terrorists is probably acceptable.  While there is a certain amount of snark related to America’s inclination to go forth into the world seeking dragons to slay, and about America’s ill-considered foreign and security policies, there seems to be little debate that intelligence collection – including signals intelligence collection – to stop terrorists from killing innocents is acceptable.

Beyond that things get interesting.  The following four propositions seem to emerge.  They are not fully mutually consistent in an intellectual sense, but they cohere in a visceral way and therein lies their power.

Intelligence collection against other countries is intrinsically dishonorable and illegal and not just when the United States does it.

Many people have commented that the defense that every country spies mounted by President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and numerous others, is not persuasive because spying is intrinsically wrong.

“Civilized educated people with ethics do not read other peoples mail,” one person wrote.

It’s gone on for thousands of years, another observes: “It is illegal and it was illegal millennia ago. It is illegal when the US spies and it is illegal when China spies.”

It’s a tu quoque argument, many people maintain.  For instance, one commenter admitted that many countries conduct signals intelligence operations, “but it does it make it right when more than one person commits a crime?”

Such activities expose “the hypocrisy of western states which claim to be transparent and accountable.

“Come on Mr President, you should be able to do better than that but you can’t,” another person wrote.

Erudite commenters even observe that spying on foreign diplomats is a violation of the Vienna Convention. Of course this sits uneasily with the proposition that it is acceptable to spies on terrorists because terrorists are usually in some country or another (except when on the high seas or in Somalia).

In particular, intelligence collection against allies is completely unacceptable.  In fact, it’s a hostile act.

The fact that the NSA was collecting information on allied European governments has, not surprisingly, outraged many people in Europe. “Spying on friends or people you don’t like is an evil practice,” wrote one person.

Another typical comment was,“The European secret services may be spying on their own citizens (in itself scandalous [sic]), but they have not been boorishly spying on the White House or the Senate!”

“Simultaneously applying the same surveillance intensity of own nationals and ‘friends’ as on those condemned ideological enemies, is neither highly diplomatic nor convincing,” wrote one German scholar.

Some observers see such behavior as counterproductive and pointless.  For instance:

You say they are “supposed” to do this. Why? Are they supposed to spy on friendly states? What’s the point? What is gained? It’s one good way to turn friendly states into less than friendly states. In the realpolitik world of diplomacy, you don’t go around shooting yourself in the foot this way.


All this [expletive] about everybody spies on everybody – no they don’t! When was the last time we had a British diplomat expelled from France or Germany for “activities incompatible with his diplomatic status”? It doesn’t happen.  What interest would anyone have in spying on a country that was no conceivable threat to them? What would we want to know that we can’t find out by reading their newspapers?

My personal favorite, however, is: “Now we know for sure that the USA are treating every country in the world, including allies, like potential enemies….Everybody needs to stand up to this arrogant, hegemonic and paranoid vampire squid that is wrapping around the face of humanity.”

American intelligence collection on European publics is even more objectionable than spying on allied European governments.

“Allies don’t spy on each other’s citizenry: the US does,” one outraged citizen wrote.  The claim that the NSA’s surveillance activity is unprecedented in its scope is a common theme.

“Eliminating the concept of privacy for the entire world population, governments, companies and institutions – yes I’d say that is an important issue. This is not espionage as we knew it.”

It’s “immoral and outrageous…[but] not really surprising from the US of A and their quest for global dominance,” says one person.

Another person’s rejoinder was, “Not just ‘immoral and outrageous’; It is ILLEGAL.  NSA should be brough[t] to the international court.”

Someone else fantasized that everyone in the world who used the Web now had standing to bring the NSA to court for illegally monitoring them.

Again, this proposition sits uneasily with the concept that it is acceptable to spy on terrorists.  Given that al Qaeda does not have the kinds of dedicated communications that the Soviet Union had, but rather piggybacks off of normal civilian email, VOIP, social media, and so forth, it’s hard to understand how one can collect information on terrorists (via signals intelligence and open source intelligence, at least) without collecting on everyone else, too.  However, these principles are not derived from the needs of intelligence agencies; rather, they are the outgrowth of political and moral views.

Even though European countries such as Germany and France collect intelligence in similar ways, these activities have a different moral value because they are on a smaller scale.

“The scandal is not spying on allies,” wrote one individual, “it is the scale of the operations.”

“France’s capabilities are a pitiful shadow of the US. For you to pretend that they are even in the same ballpark is bordering on ignorance,” wrote another.

“Update yourself,” cried someone else, “NEVER EVER was something this big done to all of us in the World.”

A scholar wrote:

I agree…that intel ops against other nations, even allied nations, have a long history. However, the current case differs in its scale and its scrupulousness. If you do – as an analogy – an intel op in a friendly football stadium, you target a few seats or a bench at most. What the NSA did was targeting every person in the whole stadium including the players. I repeat that there is something like too much and that at the beginning of the 21st century with the US still at war she would gain way more by promoting intel sharing than by sniffing out allies at a monstrous scale.

This unease with spying has deep roots in Europe.  For instance, in 1877, Bismarck directed that espionage be left to “socially lower ranking persons.”  Similarly, British Colonel George Armand Furse in his 1895 book Information in War said that the very notion of espionage naturally excited a feeling of “repugnance” and that their use was “unchivalrous.”

Despite these qualms, all of these members of the elite came to the conclusion that espionage was indispensable.  British Field Marshal Garnet Wolseley put it this way in 1871:

As a nation we are bred up to feel it a disgrace even to succeed by falsehood; the work spy conveys something as repulsive as slave; we will keep hammering along with the conviction that ‘honesty is the best policy’ and that truth always wins in the long run.  These pretty little sentences do well for a child’s copy-book, but the man who acts upon them in war had better sheathe his sword forever….An English general must make up his mind to obtain information as he can, leaving no stone unturned in order to do so.

The national security elites in Europe still adhere to this realist view.  However, in this post-Cold War world, such arguments don’t seem to wash among European publics.  These publics have been forced into awareness of the realities of intelligence collection being done both to them and in their name.  Many among them seem not to like it.

Watch this issue when elections take place in Europe and elsewhere.  If the publics vote on the basis of the four principals I laid out above, the results could be significant in two ways.  First, the election of governments that object to the realist nature of international politics will be disinclined to cooperate with the United States, the greatest defender of that system.  Second, if these countries scale back their own intelligence collection, we will all lose.  As the extensive literature on “intelligence liaison” makes clear, there is an international economy of intelligence that benefits us all, particularly on terrorism, but on many other issues as well.  As a corollary to that, nations will find themselves less able to make things happen if they are not collecting intelligence that they can exchange on the international market for other bennies.

Ultimately, such a system would be unsustainable.  However, we could be in for a period of rocky international relations with our traditional friends.  Watch the election results.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, DC. 


Photo Credit: Rich Knowles