Can Spying on Allies Be Right?

November 5, 2013

In 1917, the American Expeditionary Forces were just starting to arrive in France to help expel the German Army.  One of the first substantive assignments that American commander, General John J. Pershing, gave to his intelligence officer was to estimate the French coal supply and determine whether a shortage of coal might force France to sue for peace.  One can readily imagine why the French government might not be inclined to give an honest answer to this question.  Who wants to admit to one’s potential savior that one is going wobbly?  Even laying aside the embarrassment and risk to one’s honor, the savior might back out.

In this instance, the Americans were able to answer the question without conducting espionage, by doing some good hard research and applying some basic economics.  I mention this incident in order to illustrate how sometimes countries may reasonably want to know things about their friends and allies that those friends and allies might not want to tell them, or might not even know themselves.  So the question becomes is it right to go finding the answers when the friend or ally doesn’t wish to provide them?  This depends on whether you are a consequentialist or a deontologist.

I believe that we live in an anarchic world where self-help is the name of the game.  This is a realist world.  A realist point of view is, by and large, a consequentialist point of view.  Consequentialism maintains that actions acquire their moral value (positive or negative) from their consequences.  A key component of realism is the central role of national interests.  Hence, for realists, actions can be justified, or not, by the extent to which they further national interests.  The intelligence profession is deeply rooted in a realist understanding of the world.

This is not an intrinsically amoral understanding of the world, of course.  National interests are not God-given; they can be defined however a nation chooses to define them, with reference to whatever moral system it chooses.  Of course, some people believe that national interests are intrinsically illegitimate.  For instance, in reporting one story of alleged American-Spanish signals intelligence cooperation, The Guardian printed this unintentionally hilarious line (which tells you more about the paper than the NSA) on October 30:  “But if there was any doubt as to who held the upper hand, the NSA documents make clear that any collaboration was always to serve the needs of protecting American interests.”  One is left to infer that Spain doesn’t have anything as grubby and horrible as “interests,” and it only shared this information because of America’s Jedi mind tricks, not because it thought there was some benefit in doing so.

The alternative to the consequentialist point of view is the deontological perspective.  Under this philosophy, actions have intrinsic moral qualities.  From a deontological perspective, spying on friends and allies is likely to be wrong.  From a consequentialist perspective, it may be right under certain circumstances.

I offer three situations in which spying on an ally or a friend may be reasonable or even the right thing to do from a consequentialist point of view.

Spying on allies may be justified when allies have important interests that diverge.

Allies do not always agree and the stakes of those disagreements can be high.  For instance, both France and Germany were very vocal opponents of the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Presumably both of those governments felt themselves in retrospect that they’d made the right call.  No weapons of mass destruction were found, a brutal insurgency broke out in Iraq, and  al Qaeda was invigorated.  Would it have been unreasonable of France and Germany to have spied on the United States in 2002 and 2003 to try to find out where the United States was going so that they could either intervene to divert American policy or position themselves so as to reduce the damage to their own equities?

As an American who served in the Intelligence Community at the time, I wouldn’t have liked France or Germany to have spied on us, but it would not have struck me as a fundamental violation of the rules of the game.  By the same token, the members of the Stanford football team don’t think it’s unethical for the Cal team to try to score touchdowns as much as they try to stop them from doing just that.

Under this rubric, let’s also consider the question of “who is an ally?”  Greece and Turkey have long been members of NATO.  As such, they have long been allies.  For even longer, they have been rivals and enemies that have a long history of provoking each other.  Greece nearly murdered modern Turkey in its crib during the Turkish War of Independence after World War I.  Should they have foresworn spying on each other simply because they had joined a U.S.-led alliance against a greater enemy, the Soviet Union?

Similarly, there has been a good bit of tension recently within the European Union over spending.  The result is that a few irresponsible countries like Greece are costing their responsible allies like Germany immense amounts of money.  Would it have been wrong for Germany to have collected intelligence on Greek fiscal policy if that monitoring held out some hope of better protecting German interests?

Sometimes spying on an ally can be justified when important mutual interests converge.

David Kahn tells us in The Codebreakers that during World War II, the Germans monitored the communications of their allies and at one point warned the Italians that ciphers were insecure.  Why?  The Germans realized that their joint adversary, the British, could read those same ciphers and that their joint interests would thereby be harmed.  Was the German monitoring of Italian traffic wrong in itself?  (Yes, I know the Axis cause was a bad one, but that’s actually a different question.)

Similarly, the shared interest in fighting terrorists appears—though the reporting on this is still to be in flux—to have contributed to cooperation among Western nations including the U.S., the U.K., France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, and others, in signals intelligence collection that sometimes, at least, scooped up communications from friendly countries.  Should these countries refrain from pooling spying data if it will keep their citizens safer?

Sometimes spying on an ally can be justified if the intelligence to be derived is about a third party.

The Stuxnet virus that set back the Iranian nuclear program depended on knowing the precise workings of some SCADA software written by the German company Siemens.  After the attack, Iran blamed Siemens for providing that information to American and Israeli intelligence.  They may have been correct.  Or maybe American or Israeli intelligence stole the information from Siemens  in order to use it against Iran.  If that were the case and under the assumption that Iran’s nuclear program was a serious threat, would it necessarily have been wrong to steal that data?

So, what’s the answer?

If you answered “yes” to the questions I’ve offered above, you are a deontologist who probably believes that spying on friends and allies is intrinsically wrong under all circumstances.  You are also probably not a realist.  If you answered “no” to any of the above questions, then you are probably a consequentialist and you may be a realist.

A final caveat: just because something is morally acceptable doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a good idea.  It may have been morally acceptable to have eavesdropped on Angela Merkel’s cell phone but it turns out not to have been a good idea, as it is harming German-American relations.  It may have been morally acceptable for Israel to recruit Jonathan Pollard to steal U.S. intelligence secrets about Israel’s enemies, but that incident turned out to be a political disaster for Israel.

As this debate continues, we need to recognize that the gap between those who think that spying on allies is intrinsically wrong and those who see some need for it is fundamentally unbridgeable. Ultimately, however, the consequentialist realists will win because banning spying would be, as James Lewis of CSIS notes, about as successful as banning sex.  The best that we can hope for is some informal rules—call it “safer spying,” if you will.  The history of arms control suggests that it’s relatively easy to agree to ban systems or capabilities that nobody actually wants (e.g. nukes on the seabed, nukes in space).  Well, the current incidents might allow at least some nations to informally agree that certain practices may sound really cool but aren’t worth the risk.  But don’t count on it.


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: D. Sharon Pruitt