The cries of outrage coming from some European leaders, referring to the Americans as vile spies betraying their allies, are intriguing. Admittedly, it’s the least they could do while waiting for Europe to — maybe — establish a common position, even though they will find it difficult to take retaliatory measures. But that’s another story.
No, what is intriguing is the profound astonishment of these very leaders. There are two possible explanations: Either they haven’t studied the history of American-European relations since 1945, or they taking European citizens for a ride by showing such feigned indignation.
For, indeed, American espionage of Europe and the world is common knowledge. Moreover, it is not the first time that the press has echoed such schemes. Everybody knows that. For decades, the United States has been constantly conducting surveillance throughout the world and, in certain cases, has even used the Europeans to do it — the worldwide tapping network ECHELON being the most well-known example. The fact that the CIA hides microphones all over the place and recruits agents even within European governments is nothing new.
The journalist Vincent Nouzille provides an excellent account of this in his book, “Des secrets si bien gardés: Les dossiers de la Maison-Blanche et de la CIA sur la France et ses présidents 1958-1981” (Fayard, 2009). Here we learn that, from 1945 onward — particularly after General de Gaulle’s return to business in 1958 — the United States engaged in intense espionage activities against France, but also against numerous other countries in the world. French foreign policy and work on the atomic bomb were notable targets.
In February 1960, their planes took off from Libya in order to take samples from the radioactive cloud which was emitted during the first French nuclear test. During the 1960s, a military aircraft entered French airspace to take photographs of the Pierrelatte nuclear plant in the Rhone valley. In the face of French protests, the United States settled for expressing a few regrets.
The arrival of observation satellites and wiretapping from 1961 onward increased American intelligence capabilities. Satellites such as the KH-11, each costing $1.5 billion, were taking photographs with a resolution of 10cm. Magnum satellites were intercepting over 100 million communications per month. The haul recovered has even been displayed.
Everybody Is Spying on Everybody Else
In 1995, President Bill Clinton authorized the public disclosure of hundreds of photos taken by these satellites in France and elsewhere, without any shame or qualms. With a military space budget of $40 billion, of which over half is dedicated to intelligence, it is not surprising that the information picked up is overflowing.
Here is another example: One day, when I was in a meeting at the Pentagon, a Navy officer suddenly approached me and whispered, “The tests you just carried out on your M4 missile went perfectly.” The big American ears had worked well. My friend Vassily Michine, who was in charge of the Soviet lunar program, recently told me that American spies were everywhere in the USSR, even in the launch bunker of the Soviet lunar rocket in Baïkonour.
The KGB knew that one of the Russian technicians was a traitor helping the Americans but never succeeded in unmasking him. Confirmation came 30 years later, once the Cold War was over. As Michine was auctioning the diary he had kept daily during the 1960s at Sotheby’s in New York, a man who disappeared as quickly as he had appeared gave him a photo taken in the Baïkonour bunker by this Russian agent working for the U.S. Thirty years on and the CIA was still bragging. Fair enough.
Let’s not be naïve: Everybody is spying on everybody else. If we’re realistic and honest, each country is spying at the same time as they condemn it. Even if the Cold War has ended, it does not mean that we have entered a world of total appeasement. Yesterday, military and political espionage against the USSR prevailed. Today, it has become mainly economic and political, with several actors to monitor. France, through the intermediary of the DGSE, the French equivalent of the CIA, is taking part in this concert.
Today, the Americans condemn China’s cyberespionage activities and have no qualms in doing the same with the whole world. For my part, I spent 30 years of my life looking for and finding information about American nuclear weapons — which did not stop me from teaming up with the Americans to exchange information about Soviet missiles.
That the politicians are astonished is astonishing. That they protest is normal. In any case, there is one thing that we have known for a long time: The world is neither all black nor all white, and it is constantly at war. The only problem is that we no longer know how to tell our friends and enemies apart.