Politics / Society / World News

Spying on Allies

Keep your enemies close and your friends closer?

by Marie Baleo

Barack Obama and François Hollande shake hands. Image © JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Barack Obama and François Hollande shake hands. Image © JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Tapped Phones and Sarcastic Surveillance Reports

This week, Wikileaks, the infamous journalistic non-profit specialized in leaking secret information, revealed a new report, “Espionnage Elysée,” a collection of top secret intelligence reports and technical documents from the US National Security Agency (NSA) concerning targeting and signals intelligence intercepts of the communications of high-level officials from successive French governments over the last ten years[1].

Wikileaks’s disclosure of multiple classified NSA reports provides compelling evidence of the NSA’s extensive surveillance of the communications of incumbent French President François Hollande and his two predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012) and Jacques Chirac (1995-2007). The reports also revealed the surveillance of several French ministers and officials (including the French Ambassador to the United states) in Paris, Washington, D.C., and New York. The NSA also obtained a list of cell phone numbers belonging to officials working for the Elysée (the President’s Office), as well as the President’s private cell phone number. The Economist notes that “The American embassy in Paris (is) understood to be the nerve centre of the operation”.

The intercepted communications cover topics ranging from the Greek debt crisis, to the relation between François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to the French influence on the composition of the United Nations’ executive staff (special mention goes to the beautifully meta “US Intercepts of France Complaining about US Intercepts of France”, and the cheeky 2008 report, “Sarkozy Sees Himself as Only One Who Can Resolve World Financial Crisis”). Though they contain no state secrets, these communications evidently regard highly sensitive matters, such as, for instance, François Hollande’s decision to meet with the German opposition in 2012 in order to discuss the potential effects of a “Grexit”, a meeting of which Angela Merkel was not informed. Al Jazeerah notes that:

While Paris and Washington have good ties in general, U.N. Security Council veto-holder France fiercely maintains its independence on foreign policy and over the last two years there have been moments of friction and irritation on both sides. Hollande was disappointed by President Barack Obama’s last-minute decision not to strike Syrian government positions in 2013. U.S. officials have frequently, in private, lambasted France’s tough stance in talks over Iran’s nuclear program.

It is thus no wonder that the US opted to intercept French communications.

But while France evidently has no qualms about legalizing widespread electronic surveillance of its population (see our coverage of France’s debatable new intelligence law), it does not take foreign espionage lightly. The government quickly reacted by holding an emergency ministerial meeting and summoning Jane Hartley, United states Ambassador to France, over what French President François Hollande called “unacceptable” espionage. The President’s Office issued a statement declaring that France would not tolerate “actions that threaten its security and the protection of its interests”, while government spokesperson Stéphane Le Foll told TV channel ITélé that “We find it hard to understand or imagine what motivates an ally to spy on allies who are often on the same strategic positions in world affairs“.

In response to these tensions, Barack Obama talked to François Hollande at length and reassured the French President that the NSA was no longer spying on France. The NSA stated it “is not targeting and will not target” Hollande, a statement which you will notice cleverly avoids the past tense.

The oohs and ahs and outrage of the French government may seem disingenuous: after all, France has gained an extensive understanding, due to its cooperation with the United states on counterterrorism, of the capabilities of the world’s greatest power in terms of surveillance. Thus, The Economist notes that “France collects and shares with the Americans plenty of intelligence from the African Sahel, for instance.” Similarly, in the aftermath of the Snowden case, Bernard Squarcini, former head of French intelligence services, told newspaper Le Figaro that he was “amazed by such disconcerting naiveté. The French intelligence service knows full well that all countries, whether or not they are allies against terrorism, spy on each other all the time.[2]

NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. (Public domain image.)

NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. (Public domain image.)

This revelation is bound to bring to mind another recent US espionage scandal, with the discovery of NSA surveillance of Angela Merkel and other senior German officials, and of the cooperation between Germany’s intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), and the NSA on espionage operations conducted on various European corporations and officials. Chancellor Merkel reacted to the revelations by stating that “Spying among friends is not at all acceptable”. How could she foresee that this declaration would prove a source of embarrassment a mere few months later, in August 2014, as it came to light that Germany’s BND had been spying on Turkey[3], one of its NATO partners? Incidentally, it was also revealed that Germany had, arguably accidentally, intercepted phone calls placed by Hillary Clinton and John Kerry[4].

Peter King, chairman of the US House subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence, told German newspaper Der Spiegel that the NSA had saved thousands of lives “not just in the United states but also in France and Germany and throughout Europe”, and that the United states had been fully justified in its surveillance of Germany, partly since “that’s where the Hamburg plot began, which led to 9/11”. Indeed, Germany’s failure to neutralize the Hamburg terror cell (a grouping of radical islamists, including Mohamed Atta, who eventually played a crucial operational role in the 9/11 attacks) is a recurring leitmotiv used by defenders of the US’ choice to spy on Germany, and more generally on its allies.

Why do allies spy on each other?

In the 1920s, American Secretary of state Henry Stimson shut down the state Department’s cryptanalytic division, commenting that “gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail”. Regardless of the beauty of this sentiment, spying on allies is as old and (almost) as common as spying on enemies; although it is deemed “totally unacceptable”, it is, indeed, widely accepted.

As early as 1917, England’s MI6 used a breadth of espionage methods to ensure that the neutral United states would join World War I on the UK’s side. Thus, British intelligence services found out about Germany’s plan to obtain Mexico’s allegiance by offering it a piece of US territory. By notifying this news to the United states, England precipitated the US declaration of war. Sir William Wiseman, a senior British intelligence agent, infiltrated the White House in order to collect information on the US’ stance on the conduct of the conflict, several post-War issues and the Paris Peace Conference[5]. Today, the US and the UK have supposedly entered into an agreement not to spy on each other; the US and France tried to establish a similar agreement, to no avail.

The US itself has a rich history of spying on its European allies: in 1997, Germany discovered a US diplomat had been spying on its Ministry of the Economy. In 1995, four CIA officers were found to have spied on French economic officials during international trade negotiations[6]. What causes allied powers to jeopardize trust by turning their attention to allies when it might be better used on enemies?

Firstly, spying on each other can help countries better understand their allies’ positions, opinions and stances and gain knowledge of these opinions in advance. In the wake of NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations that the US eavesdropped on other countries’ communications and collected data on Internet users all over the world, President Barack Obama explained that all countries spied on other countries, and that:

They are going to be trying to understand the world better…seeking additional insight beyond what’s available through open sources (…) And if that weren’t the case, then there would be no use for an intelligence service. That’s how intelligence services operate.

Similarly, Charles Kupchan, CFR senior fellow and Georgetown professor, told NPR that countries spying on their allies are searching for:

General information. What’s going on in the target country? How is the governing coalition faring? Who’s up and who’s down? And then, the other [type] would be more targeted information to give the United states a leg up on a particular diplomatic issue: (…) What is the German government thinking about sanctions against Iran? These are not questions of direct national security consequence to the United states, but I think intelligence agencies see that kind of information as providing guidance to the diplomats.

Thus, the information collected by spying on allies is useful, but not always crucial or necessary – by definition, allies mean each other no harm. Indeed, France, Germany, and the United states are all NATO members, united by a pact which provides they may go to war for each other, an attack against one of them deemed to be attack against all others. In short, NATO countries go way back and theoretically tell each other everything. William McIlhenny, of Americas Quarterly, writes that “Transatlantic security cooperation is the most effective networked generator of global public goods.” Intelligence services such as the British MI6 do not assign themselves tasks, but are handed a list of priorities by the Joint Intelligence Committee and ministers. The services then investigate the possible means of acquiring information on the proposed topics and submit these possible means for review. The decision is actually taken by individuals with full knowledge of the political consequences of their actions. This begs the question: what kind of information is worth jeopardizing close diplomatic relations and triggering a crisis of confidence for?

NATO states Chiefs of Defense meeting. Image © NATO.

NATO states Chiefs of Defense meeting. Image © NATO.

Firstly, states know that such crises of confidence are temporary, particularly when allied states have long-standing, close ties and interwoven economic interests; in such cases, there is no crisis of confidence that subtle diplomacy may not solve. On the other hand, the benefits the collection of critical information may provide are much longer lasting. Collecting intelligence on an ally’s thoughts and beliefs can serve the protection of interests an ally does not seem keen on protecting (do my interests really align with theirs?); it can help a state protect itself from potential betrayal, prevent an ally from misunderstanding a situation and making the wrong decisions, or identify their vulnerabilities in order to help protect them. It is a precious means to protect a state and its inhabitants against threats, whether they be amorphous or tangible and immediate, such as crime and terrorism, cyber attacks, technology theft, drug trafficking, and more.

A state’s propensity to resort to, or eschew, spying on allies turns on its experience and perception of the permanent tension between national security and the preservation of civil liberties. In the United states, a country still traumatized by the events of 11 September, and affected by terrorism earlier in the 21st century than any other Western power, the balance tends to tilt in favor of security. Conversely, Europeans tend to favor civil liberties, some of them still wary of the powers of secret services, particularly in central Europe and Germany, which still remembers the Stasi.

But while spying on allies can be beneficial, Foreign Affairs explains that:

“Although there are reasons why U.S. spying on Germany or other European powers may be necessary, there are also good reasons for political leaders to ensure that these missions be performed with great discretion and only when regular diplomatic or intelligence liaison channels do not suffice.”

Governments ordering surveillance of their allies, if they can’t provide a compelling national security for doing so, may run into problems with the public opinion at home as well as the way they are perceived by the public opinion in foreign countries. This is another factor states must consider before taking the big jump and bugging their friends’ ministries and governmental offices.

Spying on an ally seems akin to admitting that one cannot obtain the desired information through normal political or diplomatic channels; this can mean that the state doing the eavesdropping has limited trust in its ally. And indeed, trust in diplomatic relations is a complex matter. Though allies have reached an agreement not to harm each other, pledging to help safeguard each other’s security interests, security will always be a national matter, and one that takes precedence over any illusion of friendship between states. Who knows when an alliance may end?


[1] Emphasis added.

[2] As quoted in Americas Quarterly.

[3] Read more in Foreign Policy.

[4] Read more in The Guardian.

[5] Read more in Foreign Affairs.

[6] Read more in this 1997 Wall Street Journal article.


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