Why would the US spy on its allies? Because everyone does

Spying in plain sight. Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

The spotlight must be an uncomfortable position for intelligence organisations that would far prefer to remain in the shadows. But since Edward Snowden fled the United States in the summer of 2013, there has been an almost constant drip-feed of stories concerning the operations of the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Yet the most recent scoop – originating from Wikileaks – has shown that we would do well to consider these kinds of “revelations” with a little greater care.

At its heart, the claim that the NSA spied on French presidents Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Holland, effectively boils down to: “country A spied on country B”. As a piece of news, this surely sits alongside the Pope’s status as a Catholic. What else would we expect a national intelligence gathering agency to do? The fundamental purpose of such organisations is to seek out national advantage, in whatever field – whether it is political, economic, military, or otherwise.

Nothing new

The “twist” that makes the story newsworthy, we are told, is the fact that it reveals “spying on friends”. A similar claim was made in October 2013, when the NSA was accused of targeting the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. A theatre of moral outrage followed, and the US ambassador was summoned to meet with the foreign minister.

But Merkel’s statement that “spying on friends is not on at all” was soon undermined when Der Spiegel claimed that German intelligence had “accidentally” eavesdropped on both secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Earlier this year, it was also claimed that German intelligence had spied on both the French government and the EU Commission, and passed on the products to the US.

French presidents Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande needn’t act surprised. Oliver Weiken/Julien Warnand/EPA

The press (and indeed the politicians) would perhaps do well to remember the pragmatic reality that, in the world of intelligence, there are no “friends”. There are, of course, international intelligence alliances. Perhaps the best known of these is UKUSA, the signals intelligence agreement between the UK and the US which was drawn up in the aftermath of World War II. Yet such alliances will likely incorporate an element of self interest; during the Cold War, the remnants of Britain’s empire offered valuable, otherwise inaccessible listening posts for US signals intelligence. In return, the US offered the UK access to their resources, an exchange described by intelligence scholar Richard Aldrich as “terrain for technology”.

In our interests

Ultimately, intelligence allegiances are built around the point where national interests intersect. Such intersections are not necessarily permanent, and today’s national interest may change tomorrow. Nor does a country have to be at daggers drawn with another to experience a divergence of national interest. Events may also result in the development of altogether more unlikely relationships, such as the reported links between the British SIS and Libyan intelligence following the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Perhaps the real (indeed, the only) newsworthy aspect of this story is the fact that such claims are continuing to enter into the public domain, courtesy of such organisations as Wikileaks and individuals such as Snowden. This leads to what is, perhaps, an altogether more interesting question; is it possible, in the 21st century, for the intelligence and security agencies of liberal democracies such as the US and UK to continue to go about their business in the shadows, as in years gone by, with their actions hidden from the public?

One can imagine that, at times, the British intelligence community must surely yearn for the bygone era when the very existence of the agencies – MI5, SIS and GCHQ – were unavowed. Concerns are frequently expressed about the power of the intelligence agencies to pry into our everyday lives and the consequent erosion of privacy. But in many respects, the spooks themselves appear to be ever more regularly faced with a similar problem.