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When to Spy on Our Friends

The NSA in Europe.

Nov 11, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 09 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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It is often remarked that espionage is the second-oldest profession. Written records from Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Iran suggest that spying and civilization sprang up together. In antiquity, spies could be the hidden bureaucrats of tyranny or good governance (a ruler needed to know whether a satrap was cheating the crown and its subjects) or, less often, camouflaged itinerants writing home about the machinations of rival city-states, empires, or barbarian tribes. In modern times, espionage went Orwellian, becoming primarily a tool to buttress police states. In the heartland of the West—Mother England and all her Lockean children—spying mostly has been aimed overseas and seldom has been lethal except to recruited agents in blown operations. Among the common-law-loving English-speaking nations, domestic spying has overwhelmingly targeted only nefarious foreigners, their local recruits, and successful and wanton criminals. 


America’s digital and human snoops have operated under a long-accepted rule that all foreigners—excluding our Anglophone mates—were potentially acceptable targets. When I entered the Central Intelligence Agency’s Directorate of Operations in 1985, senior case officers prided themselves on the organization’s global reach and the expectation that junior officers, who do the lion’s share of the clandestine service’s agent recruiting, would proselytize like Mormons no matter where Langley sent them. We were not supposed to be morally squeamish about our “developmentals” so long as attempts to recruit them matched headquarters’s requirements, which followed a wish-list of information areas from CIA analysts, the military, Foggy Bottom, the White House, Congress, and many other government agencies.

And here’s the Edward Snowden/National Security Agency rub: Because of advances in technology, and its greater discreetness, Fort Meade, home of the NSA, has probably replaced Langley as the primary clandestine collector of intelligence in Europe. CIA operations, if detected, might be truly annoying to Europeans, but such operations have been sufficiently small-scale, familiar, and usually unsuccessful that they could either be ignored or forgotten quickly (except by European counterespionage services). Because of its potential range and the inadequacy of European defense, the NSA has become scarier and more infuriating even though it is vastly more polite—with the NSA no one gets suborned—than CIA-run agent affairs. 

The United States has a decent record over the years of espying the infidelities, peccadilloes, and odd passions of European officials and guarding them most faithfully. It wouldn’t be surprising to discover that the agency has never once run a recruitment operation against a European official utilizing even the mildest form of blackmail. Calmer heads among Europe’s intelligence professionals, and certainly among the folks at GCHQ, the United Kingdom’s NSA, which has an extraordinarily close relationship with Fort Meade, know how well-behaved the Americans have been. The Americans and the British had the legal authority in West Germany to surveil basically whomever they wished; they used that authority with the greatest discretion. Today, Frenchmen and Italians, for example, are far better off having the NSA intercept their telephone or Internet conversations than having their own internal-security services nab them, which those services can do with considerable exuberance and secrecy. Americans are far nicer and less likely to abuse such information than are European internal-security services and political elites. French president François Mitterrand was notorious for unlawfully bugging hundreds, if not thousands, of his citizens. Unlike the NSA with its data-collection projects, Mitterrand’s men kept detailed files. The Parisian elite’s reaction to this scandal was a case study in national character. When a book, Les Oreilles du Président (The President’s Ears), revealed who of the country’s VIPs had been monitored, there was bugging-envy among those not illegally tapped. 

But national pride has always been alive and well in the European Union, especially when Americans are involved. European leaders can, of course, use nearly-impossible-to-break encrypted cell phones, as American officials do, to carry on official business. If the Americans are nabbing European state secrets through the NSA, then the real story is European leaders’ and their security services’ profound sloppiness—
not untoward American behavior. 

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