The row over U.S. eavesdropping of Chancellor Merkel’s mobile phone bubbles along, amid much fury in Europe, some of it real, some of it simulated. The administration should throw a few soothing words in Merkel’s direction, but that’s about it.
What the NSA gets up to within America (or, say, MI5 does within Britain) is one thing, but what a country’s intelligence services do beyond their own borders is an entirely different debate.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, here’s David Blair:
An important sentence appears in the explosive document from 2006 about how the US National Security Agency tapped the phones of 35 world leaders. Despite all their efforts, the American analysts had “noted little reportable intelligence from these particular numbers, which appear not to be used for sensitive discussions”. Guess what: world leaders don’t talk about sensitive subjects over the phone. Why? Because they think that someone might be listening in. And why might they believe that? Well, you have to take a deep breath here and remember one overriding fact: all big countries maintain expensive intelligence agencies charged with obtaining useful information by covert means. But surely, you might ask, they only target enemy states? Why would America spy on its friends? Again, you have to take a deep breath: the answer is that we live in a world where nations compete…
At this point, let’s interrupt David Blair with Lord Palmerston (1784–1865), one of Britain’s more effective foreign secretaries, a statesman who went on to become prime minister (my emphasis added):
Therefore I say that it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.
Back to David Blair:
America and the big European states may not be on opposing sides when it comes to fighting wars – indeed if wars break out they would actually be allies – but they compete all the time when it comes to securing big contracts, negotiating trade deals or striking agreements at international summits which happen to favour one nation over another…
And, when they believe it is in their national interests, they spy on each other.
Here, for example, from Reuters last year, is Switzerland taking action against (ahem) German espionage:
On Saturday, Switzerland said it had issued arrest warrants for three civil servants in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), accusing them of industrial espionage for buying the bank details of German tax evaders. The attorney-general said there was “concrete suspicion that specific orders from Germany were issued to use espionage to obtain information from Credit Suisse”.
And here (reported on France 24) are a few home truths from someone in France who is well-positioned to know them:
France spies on the US just as the US spies on France, the former head of France’s counter-espionage and counter-terrorism agency said Friday, commenting on reports that the US National Security Agency (NSA) recorded millions of French telephone calls. Bernard Squarcini, head of the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur (DCRI) intelligence service until last year, told French daily Le Figaro he was “astonished” when Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said he was “deeply shocked” by the claims. “I am amazed by such disconcerting naiveté,” he said in the interview. “You’d almost think our politicians don’t bother to read the reports they get from the intelligence services.”
And there are countless more stories out there like that (I discussed some of them in a post for the Corner earlier this year).
Countries spy on each other. They spy on their friends, their enemies, and those rivals who are somewhere in between. It’s what countries do. And sometimes the spies get caught. That’s part of the game, too — as are the remarks of varying degrees of hypocrisy (from all sides) in the aftermath of such arrests.
And so, the world, which, beneath the veneer, remains Hobbes’s world, turns, and here we go again.
Yes, it’s awkward to be caught (and there will doubtless be some tricky consequences), but the main lesson is to be more careful next time. For now, however, expect the noisy theater to continue for a while as manufactured outrage is followed by insincere apologies and muttered promises never, never to do it again, promises that will (hopefully) be broken as soon as they are made.