Can You Spy on Your Allies?

The news that French presidents were wiretapped by the National Security Agency has triggered many reactions. Jean-Jacques Urvoas was indignant about the fact that the United States has “no allies, only targets and slaves,” and several other commentators were also surprised by the spying “among friends.” In this situation, when the vocabulary becomes vague and often counterproductive, it is important to clarify what would be the “normal” practices between sovereign allied states.

The Exchange of Intelligence Among Allies

An alliance is an institutionalized cooperation between two or more states, principally for questions of safety. Historically, the main function of an alliance is to create a hub of military power sufficient to ensure the territorial integrity of its members when at risk of aggression: This was the reason for the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, for example. In the framework of an alliance, the exchange of intelligence is a common, although always difficult and sensitive, practice: During the Cold War, Western intelligence agencies exchanged intelligence about Soviet battle plans or the opposite side’s networks of intelligence gathering (as the Farewell affair shows).

Today, a structure dedicated to the sharing of intelligence exists at the heart of NATO, and the American and French services are engaged in a de facto alliance by their permanent exchanges regarding jihadi networks, organized crime, or foreign military interventions. The intelligence services of different countries cooperate on the subjects where their national interests overlap, and the depth of that cooperation depends on their political proximity.

Spying on One’s Allies

This question of national interests is crucial: In fact, their convergence is often the reason itself for the creation of the alliance. They are not always perfectly aligned. Just because we are allied with Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom or Italy doesn’t mean we expect these countries to have exactly the same interests as we do, or that they would act the way we would like them to: The alliance doesn’t exclude competition, and the differences of opinion are often publicly known. Intelligence, by virtue of its being a tool to help people in political power make decisions, is a common practice, even among allies.

It’s the reason the current indignation and the official protests, although logical from the point of view of a political display, have a limited significance, and for two reasons: In the first place, publishing evidence that shows that allies are spying on each other doesn’t say anything at all about the reality of the cooperative relationship between these two allies. Yes, France spies on the United States, and, yes, the United States spies on France. But the cooperation and the exchange of information on subjects fundamental to our national security are, in the opinion of all the actors concerned, consistently good, and that is what is important.

Second, it is important to stress that in the reasoning of the American services, the harvesting of information by technical and digital means is widely automated. We are talking about data collection on a major scale, to be sure, but with very little intent (which would be part of other means of collecting intelligence). In other words, the United States listens to us because it can, but that isn’t in and of itself a sign of hostile intentions. Hostility in the approach would be revealed by a use of the collected intelligence against our better interests.

Competition Isn’t Hostility

This last point is fundamental: The evidence of a competition between sovereign states (here through wiretapping) absolutely does not signify that the alliance between the two states is collapsing, nor does it reveal hostile intentions. Listening to French officials because one has the necessary technical means has absolutely nothing to do with acts of corruption, such as the financing of certain political parties, bribery, the compromising of high-level government employees and elected officials, or general propaganda on social media and so-called “alternative” news sites. Getting information on a county doesn’t include trying to influence its sociopolitical trajectory.

France, therefore, has allies, including in the realm of intelligence, and the United States itself is one of the main ones with regard to our cooperation in fundamental security concerns. But it also has enemies that it’s a good idea to keep an eye on. It would be damaging for this wiretapping affair to contribute to a blurring of the fundamental distinction between competition and hostility, between allies and enemies, which would greatly benefit the latter.

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