The Agenda

The Case for Spying on Our Allies

Elbridge Colby argues that the U.S. government has perfectly legitimate reasons to spy on allied governments:

1. The U.S. government collects foreign intelligence to protect its citizens, and it is often necessary to collect intelligence on U.S. allies to achieve this objective, as the decisions made within allied countries, and by their governments, have significant implications for the U.S. Moreover, he notes that U.S. allies are countries the U.S. is pledged to defend, and as such the U.S. has an interest in understanding how they operate.

2. Alliances are mutual-defense pacts among separate and distinct states with their own interests, and allied states often try to conceal their activities from friendly governments. The U.S. government can’t expect allied governments to willingly share all information that might be relevant to U.S. interests.

Even close allies, like Germany, have been cause for concern at various points:

Just take Germany, the focus of the current controversy. Germany is one of the most important and steadfast U.S. allies, and we should make every effort to keep it as one. Yet since World War II, Germany has seriously considered pursuing its own nuclear weapons capability, flirted with unilateral rapprochement with the Soviet Union, stirred European fears during reunification in the 1990s, and stridently opposed U.S. action against Iraq in the 2000s. All of these issues, and many more like them, were questions in which the United States had highly important interests at stake and thus very good reasons to want to know how Germany might behave.

And of course Germany is not a special case. Other allies have surprised Washington by going to war or coming close to it, pursued covert nuclear-weapons programs, and surreptitiously tried to undermine U.S. peace efforts. Moreover, alliances are not undying. Observe the dramatic shifts away from the United States that de Gaulle initiated in France in the 1960s or that the Ayatollah Khomeini brought about after the overthrow of the Shah. And it is worth noting that the U.S. government was surprised by the Iranian Revolution precisely because it had so sharply limited intelligence collection within the country under the Shah, then considered a close and reliable ally. Given that we have been haranguing the Intelligence Community since 9/11 for failures of imagination and the inability to “anticipate surprise,” wouldn’t it be unwise to hamstring their reasonable ability to do so?

And Colby makes it clear that the U.S. still has a great deal at stake when it comes to decisions made by allied governments:

Japan and the Philippines are engaged in fervent territorial disputes with megapower China; South Korea has pledged it will respond forcefully to North Korean attacks; Middle East partners appear prepared to do the same in the face of Iranian provocations; and the Baltic states have long-running disputes with Putin’s Russia. We rightly take the side of our allies in each of these disputes, but a realistic look reveals that our interests and policies and those of our allies do not always fully coincide, and sometimes diverge considerably. Given that any of those scenarios could lead to a crisis or even conflict, ones in which the United States would be expected to come to its allies’ aid (and remember that some of those potential adversaries can not only attack American forces abroad but can strike with devastating force at the American homeland), don’t we have excellent reasons to gain as clear an understanding as possible of how our allies are going to act? [Emphasis added]

I think Colby is absolutely right that the U.S. government has good reason to monitor allied governments — let alone non-allied governments. U.S. intelligence collection efforts don’t just undergird U.S. security. They also help protect allied countries, whether they welcome U.S. intelligence collection efforts or not. What Colby doesn’t reckon with, however, is the “end of hypocrisy” dynamic identified by Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore. Allied governments might have been willing to turn a blind eye to U.S. intelligence collection efforts when they were hidden. But now, as the supply of potential leakers grows and as the government’s ability to plug leaks wanes thanks to technological advances, allied governments can no longer wink and nod at U.S. intelligence collection efforts. Rather, they are being forced to acknowledge that they are being spied upon by the U.S., and they have no choice but to face vocal domestic critics motivated by anti-American nationalist sentiment, civil libertarian conviction, or some combination of the two. The “good news,” if you can call it that, is that most of the public in allied countries is probably indifferent to U.S. intelligence collection efforts. But the groups that are opposed are influential, and increasingly so. They are aided by the (misguided) perception that the world is safe enough that the U.S. security umbrella can be taken for granted. And unintentionally, they are improving the relative position of countries that are frank in their assertions of self-interest (like Russia and China) against the U.S., which holds itself to a higher moral standard. Farrell and Finnemore address this irony:

The easiest course for the U.S. government to take would be to forgo hypocritical rhetoric altogether and acknowledge the narrowly self-interested goals of many of its actions. Leaks would be much less embarrassing — and less damaging — if they only confirmed what Washington had already stated its policies to be. Indeed, the United States could take a page out of China’s and Russia’s playbooks: instead of framing their behavior in terms of the common good, those countries decry anything that they see as infringing on their national sovereignty and assert their prerogative to pursue their interests at will. Washington could do the same, while continuing to punish leakers with harsh prison sentences and threatening countries that might give them refuge.

The problem with this course, however, is that U.S. national interests are inextricably bound up with a global system of multilateral ties and relative openness. Washington has already undermined its commitment to liberalism by suggesting that it will retaliate economically against countries that offer safe haven to leakers. If the United States abandoned the rhetoric of mutual good, it would signal to the world that it was no longer committed to the order it leads. As other countries followed its example and retreated to the defense of naked self-interest, the bonds of trade and cooperation that Washington has spent decades building could unravel. The United States would not prosper in a world where everyone thought about international cooperation in the way that Putin does.

Farrell and Finnemore thus suggest that the U.S. government start “acting in ways more compatible with its rhetoric,” which presumably means that the U.S. should abandon or at least scale back its intelligence collection efforts in allied countries, among other things. This would be unwise, for all of the reasons Colby identifies, yet it’s not clear that the U.S. government has much choice in the age of leaks.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

Most Popular

Immigration

What Now for Trump’s Border Wall?

The verdict on the U.S.–Mexico border wall President Trump promised to construct is decidedly mixed as the year comes to a close. The “big, beautiful wall,” as Trump referred to it, reached 400 miles in length by the end of October, when the Department of Homeland Security held a ceremony hailing the ... Read More
Immigration

What Now for Trump’s Border Wall?

The verdict on the U.S.–Mexico border wall President Trump promised to construct is decidedly mixed as the year comes to a close. The “big, beautiful wall,” as Trump referred to it, reached 400 miles in length by the end of October, when the Department of Homeland Security held a ceremony hailing the ... Read More

The Imaginary Trump

Like Andrew Jackson, Donald Trump is man who represents the age in which he lived. Whatever you may think of the age. Jackson embodied a generation of men who had risen and made their mark in a young country. He represented their desire for greater representation, even if it had costs for slaves and Indians. He ... Read More

The Imaginary Trump

Like Andrew Jackson, Donald Trump is man who represents the age in which he lived. Whatever you may think of the age. Jackson embodied a generation of men who had risen and made their mark in a young country. He represented their desire for greater representation, even if it had costs for slaves and Indians. He ... Read More
Books

Three Cheers for the Quiet Ones

People often dismiss shy, quiet characters in literature. Readers prefer to identify with Jo March, Elizabeth Bennett, or Anne Shirley -- those delightful, bold, and charming characters who made a deep impression on us when we first encountered them. While there’s nothing wrong with emulating or admiring these ... Read More
Books

Three Cheers for the Quiet Ones

People often dismiss shy, quiet characters in literature. Readers prefer to identify with Jo March, Elizabeth Bennett, or Anne Shirley -- those delightful, bold, and charming characters who made a deep impression on us when we first encountered them. While there’s nothing wrong with emulating or admiring these ... Read More
Media

Wajahat Ali, Ctd.

I gather he didn’t like my comment on his New York Times op-ed on the folly of reaching out to Trump supporters. He snipes, “I await The National Review’s piece on reaching out to Biden voters and reading about their ‘elegy’ and understanding their ‘economic anxiety.’” After the 2016 election, ... Read More
Media

Wajahat Ali, Ctd.

I gather he didn’t like my comment on his New York Times op-ed on the folly of reaching out to Trump supporters. He snipes, “I await The National Review’s piece on reaching out to Biden voters and reading about their ‘elegy’ and understanding their ‘economic anxiety.’” After the 2016 election, ... Read More