Why do allies spy on each other?

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


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • The problem isn't spying.

    The problem is the unconstitutional use of spying on yourself...
    • The problem isn't

      that they are spying on each other, in general, it is the scale of the spying.

      In the past, due to restricted resources, spying was relegated to working on known intelligence and putting those resources where they could be of most use - i.e. you actually spied on people who were your KNOWN enemies or you had a pretty strong idea that they were in positions where you could pressure them to "your way of thinking" (i.e. politicians in a foreign land) or where you think they could be a danger.

      Governments spying on governments is nothing new. It is just a game of who can do it better and can you stop the other guys spying on you. The "scandal" here is that the politicians weren't made aware by their own security services that their communications were being eavesdropped upon and that said security services weren't advising them to use encrypted communications!

      What is new is the scale of the spying and the fact that it is going beyond enemies, politicians in foreign lands and suspected bad guys to assuming that everybody in the world is a terrorist, until proven guilty and taken out by a drone strike.
  • 2 simple steps

    step 1 : read the zdnet "about us" section

    About Us

    ZDNet brings together the reach of global and the depth of local, delivering 24/7 news coverage and analysis on the trends, technologies and opportunities that matter to IT professionals and decision makers.

    Whatever your role in the IT buying cycle, ZDNet provides support -- from investigating options to optimizing a solution. Whether you want to follow hot topics or emerging trends, or keep up to date with the latest news and events, ZDNet is the destination for professionals seeking to research technology-related issues, and solve business technology problems.

    step 2 : realize this article doesnt belong here.
    • step 3 :

      Don't read any of Gewirtz' articles then, if you "realize this article doesnt belong here."

      Now...back under your bridge!
    • Good parents understand why Allies spy on each other

      Trust, but verify.
    • Actually, this article DOES belong here.

      The spying is done on and with systems that we build and maintain. And the means to spying on foreign governments are the same means that are used to illegally spy on U.S. citizens (Like most of us here) and businesses.

      The reality is that there should be no laws against U.S. citizens attempting to spy on anything our government does; that's a requirement for responsible exercise of democracy in a Republic. But the government isn't supposed to spy on us unless it already has sufficient evidence that a specific crime has been committed, and can convince a judge to that effect. Of course if they keep the fact that they are spying on anyone secret, how can anyone know that they're breaking the law or not? Look back on some of the speeches that our Senators and Congress critters have made concerning some classified briefings they've attended. These agencies are breaking the law every minute of every day, and nobody is in a position to call them out on it.
      • Put more directly, the tools of the spy are no different ...

        .. than the tools of the hacker.

        The only difference is what they are stealing, and from whom. The hacker is stealing your information in order to steal your money. No matter how you shake it, the hacker is not better than a thief.

        No matter how you cast it, the NSA is no better than a thief either. They are stealing information (even from their friends) in order to gain a competitive advantage over their "friends" - in the event that those "friends" might one day become enemies.

        That said, stealing a couple of BlackBerries off of a table in the White House is considerably less intrusive than tapping the personal phone lines of a Head of State!
        M Wagner
      • By the way

        I don't mind our government using the same search tools that the rest of us have available. That's a level playing field.
        If you put the information out there, that's on you, not Uncle Sam's minions.
  • Allies have always spied on each other

    the issue I have is the US government spying on US citizens in the USA. Countries don't have friends or allies really. What they have are shared interests that come and go. Look through out history and you'll see "enemies" be come "friends" when it suits them. It makes sense to me to spy on a ally if you don't believe they are being straight with you. It just makes sense. When european spy agencies come to the CIA or NSA for information do you think they care how the USA got the information the allies are looking for?
  • The boot licking this guy does

    for the current administration is embarrassing. Seriously, man, don't you have any self respect?
  • the cardinal rules of espionage

    The rules are:

    Thy shall not get caught.

    If caught, one must provide plausible deniability to for the leaders.
  • I like

    The excuse Obamba didn't know, so couldn't be blamed. So..... That's alright then. No worries about the NSA acting completely un-sanctioned.

    Anyway, with everyone kicking of at the USA, the UK is just keeping it's head down and hoping no-one twigs that we are just as bad (if not worse).
    • Yep. And Regan for Iran-Contra. Bush 43, for invading Iraq ...

      ... "he didn't know" that there were no chemical weapons.

      This is not Democrat versus Republican. Plausible deniability had been around as long as the Republic. Lincoln did it. Kennedy did it. Nixon did it. Clinton did it.
      M Wagner
  • Knowledge is power...

    Why do allies spy on each other? Simple: knowledge is power, and an effective foreign policy depends on knowing as much as possible about the motives of all actors. Anyone who thinks that the world's intelligence agencies aren't actively engaged in trying to gather as much information about the U.S. government and its motives is terminally naive.

    The problem isn't spying on allies, it's getting caught spying on allies. Tends to put a chill in the relationship.
  • I thought that fake outrage

    was something that only Republicans did. i guess it is contagious.
  • Permanent Interests

    "Nations do not have permanent friends nor permanent enemies, only permanent interests." (Paraphrasing Lord Palmerston) Up until World War I the US had contingency plans in place to fight a hypothetical war with England. Even though both nations were representative democracies we were competitors in many arenas even though the last time we were actual enemies was the War of 1812. Since WWI we've been joined at the hip with the UK which expanded to the "Five Eyes" club but that is pretty much it. Therefore it behooves every nation to keep tabs on every other nation and every nation does do it. Anyone who claims differently is either naive or lying. The NSA is merely the one who got it's hand caught in the cookie jar.

    As others have said, the real scandal here is that American intelligence is spying on it's own citizens. That is not supposed to happen. Hopefully the fallout from this scandal will be Patriot Act reforms.
  • That is not supposed to happen ........

    yea, right! So the US Government is the only government that is spying on its citizen??? Oh, yea, in your wet dreams! The truth is that ALL governments spy on their citizen - always have, always will. So it never ceases to amaze me when I read about the (fake) outrage because this has been happening. Meh, live with it people because you ain't gonna change it for as long as you have government organizations whose job it is to spy - for what ever reason - and that will never change. (be ever vigilant for the enemy within - for we, the people, ARE the enemy of the elite)
  • But everyone else is doing it!

    Okay I'm sorry, but this just sounds like a little kid who got caught breaking the rules. "But Mom, everyone else does it!"

    That is hardly a valid excuse to break the law.
    Not everyone drives the speed limit either, but that doesn't mean when you're caught doing it you don't get a ticket. The laws are there for a reason. Piss off enough people by breaking the law and you might lose an ally, or start a war. History has shown wars can start over more trivial things than spying.
    Koopa Troopa
  • The weakness of our Constitution...

    The correct term for modifying the Constitution without following the process set down is "sedition."
    Tony Burzio
    • The Constitution only protects Citizens ...

      ... not NON-CITIZENS. The problem as it stands today is that the U.S. Government can hide behind "national security" as an excuse not to be open and transparent.

      It started with the FISA court. The law was abused by Bush 43. The PROBLEN is that the Constitution does not give the Supreme Court original jurisdiction over legislation. As a result, the Supreme Court cannot just the legality of the law until someone challenges the law in court and only then if it reaches to U.S. Courts of Appeal.

      When the Senate (including then President-Elect Obama and his opponent, Senator McCain), held corporations "blameless" for cooperating with the government without being presented a search warrant, any opportunity for any entity to questions the Patriot Act or the FISA Court was LOST.

      Perhaps someday the U.S. Government with look upon these says with the shame we carry for how we treated African Americans and Native Americans in the 19th Century, or how we treated Japanese-Americans during W.W.II, or how we treat homosexuals today.
      M Wagner