Intelligence Arms Control: Dead on Arrival?

November 20, 2013

I’ve been intrigued by the recent proposals to establish some sort of international agreement stating that U.S. intelligence agencies would not spy on European governments and vice versa.  As a way of considering whether any such arrangement is actually feasible, I’ve been thinking of historical precedents.  It seems to me that there are a few worth examining for potential lessons, but only one holds out the slightest theoretical hope of success.

The Five Eyes community: U.S., UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand

The political and cultural commonalities among these countries are so substantial that the motivation to spy on each other is essentially zero.  Policy preferences among these countries are also usually well-aligned, so much so, in fact, that some Britons derisively refer to their own government as being Washington’s poodle.  It is notable that British voters never came close to electing anyone like 1980s’ Labour leader Michael Foote who would have purposely upset the trans-Atlantic apple cart.  Moreover, even when there are important disagreements among these countries—such as when Canada declined to participate in the invasion of Iraq—they are handled in low-key ways.  Unlike Germany, France, and to a lesser extent, Belgium, Canada did not campaign actively to subvert the United States’ policy.  Today’s Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, has frequently been compared to George W. Bush and accused of being too pro-American.

In addition, the degree of actual interpenetration and cooperation on intelligence, defense, foreign policy and other issues among the Five Eyes countries is so high that, again, it reduces the motivation to spy.  Information is readily and openly shared among these countries, so there is no need to steal it.  This interpenetration also provides some degree of assurance that no spying is taking place.  Furthermore, the fact that the policymaking processes in these countries are substantially transparent also reduces the motivation to spy.

The Warsaw Pact

The non-Soviet Warsaw Pact countries (with the exception of Romania) spied little if at all on the Soviet Union.  The reasons for this were two: these countries’ intelligence services were effectively under Soviet control, merely one more manifestation of the loss of their sovereignty to the USSR.  Second, Soviet penetration—both overt and clandestine—of these services was so extensive that any espionage aimed at the USSR would have been promptly detected and corrected.

Countries with no meaningful interaction

I doubt that Nepal spies on Guatemala or vice versa.  What would be the point?

None of these precedents seem relevant to the United States, Germany, France, etc.  Clearly the United States and the countries of Europe interact extensively, so the last precedent doesn’t apply.  Furthermore, all players here are fully sovereign (though the Gehlen Organization, the predecessor to the German BND, was under American control before the Federal Republic of Germany gained its sovereignty), so the second precedent does not apply either.  Finally, the sad fact is that none of the countries in Europe other than the United Kingdom have the kind of close relationship with the United States that is necessary for a Five Eyes-like arrangement.  (Note that saying that a Five Eyes-like arrangement is not plausible is different from saying that spying actually occurs.  It may or may not.  Read the papers and draw your own conclusions.)

This has come as a horrible shock in Germany in particular.  Language may have something to do with it, but for the Germans I really have just five words: “Gerhard Schroeder and Joschka Fischer.”  Chancellor Schroeder ran for reelection on an explicitly anti-American platform, with Jacques Chirac led the charge against the invasion of Iraq, and after negotiating an energy deal with Russia late in his second term, took a job with Gazprom.  Foreign Minister Fischer, meanwhile, was a former German radical who was every bit as aggressive in bashing the United States as his boss.  Given a few more words, I might add “George W. Bush and Dick Cheney”, whose judgment and motives I imagine few Germans trusted.  Perhaps, then, the precedent that holds the most promise is,

Cold War arms control

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union found it easiest to agree to ban or limit things that neither side had a great desire to have.  This explains, for instance, agreements to ban nuclear weapons on the seabed and in space and the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty which limited both sides to a very small number of strategic ABMs.  This last was easy because neither side was having much luck actually building ABM systems that worked well.  In fact, the U.S. rather quickly deactivated the few ABMs that the treaty allowed it to have.

However, when the United States and the Soviet Union both wanted and could build particular capabilities, they could sometimes still come to useful agreements to limit (SALT, START) or even ban (INF) such capabilities.  In such circumstances, they could get around their interests in cheating by agreeing only to treaty provisions that could be verified.  That way, if cheating occurred, then the other side would know and could take countervailing action.

These precedents do not provide much hope for agreements not to spy.  The United States and many countries in Europe frequently have policy differences that might reasonably motivate spying.  France, for instance, recently seems to have blindsided the United States over the Iranian nuclear talks.  Moreover, given the inherently clandestine nature of espionage (human and technical), it would be somewhere between extremely difficult and completely impossible to verify an agreement between the United States and another country not to spy.

The only hope, it seems to me, is to dismantle the infrastructure of espionage.  There is some precedent for this.  The United States dismantled the American Black Chamber in 1929 after Secretary of State Stimson indignantly proclaimed that “gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail!”  (Mind you, the Navy Department already had a very small code-breaking outfit and the War Department soon created its own tiny such organization.)  Less ambitiously, various countries have from time to time dramatically scaled back their intelligence efforts against particular targets.  Joseph Fitsanakis has noted that South Africa started collecting much less on Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia after the end of the apartheid regime.  He has similarly pointed to Portugal, which substantially scaled back collection on southern Africa after its 1974 retrenchment.

One can imagine that if the NSA announced that it was firing all its employees that spoke European languages, dismantling satellite dishes, and putting some of its buildings up for sale—and if European signals intelligence agencies did the same thing—then perhaps an agreement to spy might be verifiable.  Even under such circumstances, I’m not fully convinced that spying and its consequent controversies would end.

That will probably be the first order of President Glenn Greenwald when he takes office.  But I hear he hasn’t even formed an exploratory committee yet, so I’m not holding my breath.


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: frederic.jacobs