Why do allies spy on each other?

Summary:Allies spy on each other. The French broke into our diplomats' hotel rooms and sifted through luggage, Israel has tried to infiltrate spies into the Pentagon, Mexico stole White House BlackBerry devices, and Germany broke into the email communications of both diplomats and journalists. But why? Read on.

Over the past few weeks, the new flavor of outrage has been the issue of whether or not the NSA (or the U.S. government in general) is spying on America's allies.

Reports have cropped up about American electronic eavesdropping on current German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Mexican President Filipe Calderon.

Additionally, HuffPo reports that "French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault pronounced himself 'shocked'" when he learned that the U.S. allegedly infiltrated French computers in embassies.

The French outrage goes beyond shock. According to HuffPo, Ayrault stated, "It is unbelievable that an ally country such as the United States is capable to go as far as to spy on private conversations that have no strategic rationale and no impact on the national defense."

Yeah, well.

I guess it would be unbelievable if the French hadn't conducted such little adventures themselves. Take, for example, an AP report reprinted in the Lakeland, Florida Ledger dated December 15, 1985.

The French were apparently capable to go so far as break into American diplomats' hotel rooms and rifle through their briefcases. The 1985 article actually documents an event that took place in the 1960s.

According to the report, Lyndon Johnson's Treasury Secretary Henry Fowler and then-soon-to-be U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. George Wildman Ball were on a trip to Paris and because the U.S. embassy was being renovated, they were staying in a local hotel.

As it turns out, both men's luggage was examined by the French government, a little factoid that a French diplomat quietly let slip some months later.

So, to paraphrase French President Ayrault, "It is unbelievable that an ally country such as France is capable to go as far as to break and enter private rooms and personal luggage that have no strategic rationale and no impact on the national defense."

Allies spy on each other. Back in 2004, the FBI investigated an Israeli worker in the Pentagon, who was reportedly an analyst in an undersecretary's office and who may have been attempting to influence U.S. policy towards Iran and Iraq.

The Israeli spy had developed ties to then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who, according to an article in Harpers was the primary author of the Bush Doctrine and a staunch advocate of war with Iraq.

Allies spy on each other. Germany's Merkel herself hasn't been immune to the urge to spy on allies. As recently as 2008, German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported that Germany's Bundesnachrichtendienst (better known as the BND, Germany's CIA) had been "monitoring email correspondence between Afghan Trade and Industry Minister Amin Farhang and a German journalist."

Yeah. That sounds familiar.

Allies spy on each other. Just to round out the mix, let's not hesitate to remember that outraged former Mexican President Calderon himself was present when his diplomatic "functionary" Rafael Quintero Curiel stole White House BlackBerry's from a table right outside the room where Calderon and our President Bush were meeting.

I wrote about that last week, in NSA and Mexico: missing facts, reporters are puppets on Snowden's string .

So, yes, everyone is outraged that the NSA might be conducting signals intelligence operations against allies. Our so-called allies are using this as an opportunity to swat the U.S. upside the head, and potentially as leverage to talk the U.S. into some sort of concession in the future.

On the other hand, the mainstream American press, the suddenly holier-than-thou international press, and the always hyperbolic blogigentsia are screaming "foul" at the tops of their oh-so-righteous lungs.

As we've seen in just one set of examples, the French broke into our diplomats' hotel rooms and sifted through luggage, Israel has tried to infiltrate spies into the Pentagon, Mexico stole White House BlackBerry devices, and Germany broke into the email communications of both diplomats and journalists.

The thing is, allies spy on each other. They always have and they always will. So all this outrage is either meant to drum up traffic in our attention economy (I'm looking right at you, Guardian!), or out of a complete lack of historical and geopolitical perspective on the part of reporters and bloggers.

Either way, spying among allies will continue, probably forever.

Why? Well here's a simple reason: to make sure they're still allies. Of course, the need for information and leverage goes deeper than that, but that will do for today.

Allies spy on each other because they don't always tell the truth when meeting face-to-face.

Think about it. When you're out with your friends, do you always tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Or do you sugarcoat, exaggerate, or omit little details? Sure you do.

Now punch it up to the geopolitical level where national strategies and even shared weapons systems probably require knowing more than what's been bragged about at a cocktail party.

Like I said. Allies spy on each other.

P.S. Hey, check it out! I made it through this entire piece without a single Sun Tzu reference. If you need some Tzu to feel complete about any discussion of espionage, I invite you to read For China, hacking may be all about Sun Tzu and World War III .

Topics: Government : US, Government, Privacy

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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