I guess it’s not surprising that nobody in Berlin got the joke Barack Obama told on his visit in 2008, when he pledged to a wildly cheering crowd that his election would mean a new era of “allies who will listen to each other.” True, the president’s sense of comic timing needs some fine-tuning: It took five years for him to deliver the punch line — that he’d be doing his listening on an NSA tap of German Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s cell phone. But give him a break — it took three seasons before anybody thought Seinfeld was funny, too.
Merkel, predictably, was a real crankypants about the whole thing. “Spying among friends is not at all acceptable against anyone,” she said stiffly. But she wasn’t the only foreign leader to react angrily to reports of U.S. spying on its allies released by disaffected NSA computer jockey Edward Snowden.
In France, Spain and Mexico, U.S. ambassadors were called in to be administered 40 diplomatic lashes. Brazil asked for help from the United Nations. European Parliament President Martin Schulz said that American intelligence was “out of control” and British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed that was a “good and sensible” judgment.
Yet an odd silence surrounds some of the other disclosures from Snowden and his allies at Wikileaks. The holier-than-thou-yanks Cameron had nothing to say about the news that the GCHA — the British version of the NSA – earlier this year launched a hacking attack on Belgium’s British intelligence agency. And mum’s the word in Paris and Berlin when it comes to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable in which a leading German aerospace executive declares that French intelligence is stealing Germany blind: “France is the evil empire in stealing technology, and Germany knows this.”
Plenty of genuine outrages have been uncovered by the blizzard of leaks about the rampant growth of the U.S. surveillance state. The fact that we spy on our allies is not one of them. Governments — all governments — have a voracious appetite for information about one another, one that is checked only by the availability of resources. If we collect more intelligence about our friends than they do about us, it’s not because they aren’t trying.
A Defense Department study of spies captured and convicted in the United States between 1947 and 2001 showed that 15 percent of them were working for countries that were considered either neutral or U.S. allies. Among them were Great Britain, France, South Korea, the Netherlands, Taiwan, Israel, Japan, Greece, South Africa, the Philippines and El Salvador.
And remember, those are just the spies who were arrested, only a tiny part of the intelligence landscape. Espionage — particularly commercial espionage, in which other countries try to steal sensitive technology — may be one of our biggest growth industries. A 2005 report by the National Counterintelligence Executive, an association of all the U.S. government agencies charged with protecting the nation from foreign espionage, showed that 108 different countries tried to steal American technology during the previous year.
Nor are we talking about people trying to get a peek at the next iPhone. The target technology included everything from laser sights for M-16 rifles to components for Hellfire and Hawk missiles. The spies significantly “eroded the U.S. military advantage by enabling foreign militaries to acquire sophisticated capabilities that might otherwise have taken years to develop,” the report said.
The United States has less need of five-fingered discounts on weapons than most of its allies. But there are other good reasons to keep a covert eye on your friends. For one thing, they don’t always act like your friends. Had a suspicious President Eisenhower not ordered U2 spy planes to keep a careful eye on America’s top three allies of the era — Great Britain, France and Israel — he would have been caught flat-footed by their secret plan to attack Egypt and seize the Suez Canal in 1956. Instead, he was prepared to apply quick pressure and force a withdrawal before the Soviet Union went nuts.
Despite all the faux-fierce rhetoric around the world the past few weeks, other nations understand this. Their loud complaints otherwise are partly an attempt to embarrass the United States into giving up its gigantic advantages in the espionage game, if only for a little while, and partly an attempt to convince their own citizens that they aren’t powerless in this situation — no government wants to look like a 98-pound weakling getting sand kicked in its face.
That’s why the headline over a satirical piece in the New Yorker last month was not only hilarious, but apt: N.S.A. PROMISES TO STOP GETTING CAUGHT SPYING ON ALLIES.