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Hard Talk

Should the U.S. spy on its allies?

Yes: Gabriel Marcella; No: William McIlhenny

In this issue:
Illustration: Wesley Bedrosian

Leaders' reactions to the revelations are really about domestic politics. Everybody spies, even on allies.

Gabriel Marcella

Should the U.S. spy on its allies? Yes

The reported snooping by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) on world leaders is a rich teachable moment. It shows the underside of international relations. Spying on other governments—including friendly ones—is a pillar of modern foreign policy and a vital tool to protect against modern security threats like international crime, terrorism, cyber-attacks, drug trafficking, climate change, and stealing technology. As the saying goes, friends today may be foes tomorrow.

We really don’t know what information was gathered, but it caused an upheaval in various capitals friendly to the United States. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff cancelled a long-awaited state visit to the U.S. because of the Edward Snowden revelations, claiming that the NSA spying was an attack “on the sovereignty and the rights of the people” of Brazil.1 Similarly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was upset by reports that the U.S. was listening to her cell phone communications; she, in turn, demanded a no-spying agreement with the United States.2

Are we to believe the surprise of these leaders? Bernard Squarcini, France’s former intelligence boss, isn’t fooled. Squarcini told Le Figaro, “I am amazed by such disconcerting naiveté. The French intelligence service knows full well that all countries, whether or not they are allies against terrorism, spy on each other all the time.” Former French Foreign Minister Bernard Koucher lamented, “We don’t have the same means as the United States—which makes us jealous.”3

If everybody spies, what explains the furor over the Snowden leaks? Democracies must respond to their constituencies, and governments will therefore react sternly to offenses against national sovereignty, especially if they expose security vulnerabilities. In the case of Brazil, President Rousseff was going through a delicate time in domestic politics:  street demonstrations over the World Cup in June highlighted the abrupt decline in her popularity.

Acting resolute in foreign affairs was therefore politically advantageous. As Fabio Zanini, world editor of the Folha de São Paulo, observed, “You’ve never heard of a Latin American leader losing political points for snubbing the Yankees.” Matías
Spektor, professor of international relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas, added that the political opposition would have used a photo of Rousseff with U.S. President Barack Obama “like a bazooka.”4 In addition, taking leadership on an emerging international concern, such as information security, enhances Brazil’s global prestige.

But in a matter of weeks after Rousseff’s outrage over the spying, it was revealed that Brazil had also spied on foreign diplomats, though its method was lower tech than the NSA’s.5

History shows us that spying has been a crucial part of U.S. security policy for decades. In 1929, then-Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson, who struggled with the practice, closed the cryptanalytic office of the Department of State, declaring that “gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.” He had to abandon such noble sentiments when, as Secretary of War during World War II, the allies depended on intelligence from the Enigma machine to anticipate German military operations. The U.S. had also deciphered the Japanese Navy’s code in the 1930s.

The late Soviet leader Joseph Stalin presided over a massive penetration of the U.S. government, even as Moscow and Washington collaborated as World War II allies. The penetration was revealed by code breakers in the Army’s Signal Intelligence Service, the organization that became the National Security Agency, through what became known as the Venona Project. Venona identified over 350 agents, including high-level American officials working for the Soviet Union, such as the second-highest ranking official in the Treasury Department and a personal assistant to then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Venona also identified the spies who delivered detailed technical secrets of the Manhattan Project, which enabled the Soviets to accelerate development of the atomic bomb and adopt a more aggressive position during the early stages of the Cold War.6 Today’s security threats are more amorphous than they were during World War II, but no less worrisome.

Despite the historical precedent for spying and its near ubiquitous use among governments, there has been and will continue to be fallout from the NSA revelations. However, those hitting the panic button regarding U.S. relations are missing the bigger picture. The loss of trust between the U.S. and Brazil will be temporary; their bilateral agenda is too important for either to ignore. This is even truer of our relations with Mexico, since the U.S. is its top trade partner.

Nonetheless, even the most sensitive squabbles between friends can be resolved with careful diplomacy.  After Colombia sat down with the U.S. to discuss the Snowden revelations about alleged NSA snooping, the interests of both sides appeared to be satisfied. Without offering details, Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin emerged from the talks to announce, “We have received the necessary assurances in order to be able to continue to work.”7

The information technology revolution has made the world smaller and more penetrable. Personal privacy is harder to maintain, especially when even friends feel no compulsion to act like “gentlemen” when security is perceived to be at stake.  It can be argued that the revelations about spying on their national leaders offered a constructive lesson for the security agencies of Brazil and Germany: they will, or should, take immediate steps to reduce their vulnerabilities. Either officials were too careless in handling secure communications, or their technology was not as sophisticated as it needs to be in today’s world of high-tech snooping. But the most important lesson from these episodes is an age-old one: if you’re going to spy—and most nations will—don’t get caught.

The revelations have hurt U.S. diplomatic and economic interests.

William McIlhenny

Should the U.S. spy on its allies? No

Governments are supposed to protect their nations from foreign threats, and good intelligence is critical to that task. And while spying on enemies is not particularly controversial, things get more complicated when clandestine intelligence operations are directed at friends and partners. There has to be a careful balancing of benefits and potential for damage—especially if activities become public.

The crisis around the leaks by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden shows why unrestricted snooping on partners—especially their leaders—can be a bad idea unless driven by compelling national security needs. The information we have been given to justify the programs alleged by Snowden doesn’t seem to clear that bar. Yes, everybody spies. But the ease with which countries covertly, and routinely, gather information about each other doesn’t change the stakes.

Among close partners, trust is precious and is crucial to cooperation. It can be hard to build and easy to lose. So it should be no surprise that trust was the biggest casualty when the Snowden leaks revealed that the private communications of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, and other leaders, were intercepted.

The reaction from the Mexican government was quietly (but pointedly) conveyed through bilateral channels. Mexico is our closest partner in Latin America, a leading player in Atlantic, Pacific, North American, and Latin American integration, and is today a vital link in U.S. competitiveness. Harming the trust that undergirds that relationship for the sake of an occasional juicy intercept is short-sighted, especially when the level of confidence between both nations was probably at an historic high point.

The Brazil case is more fraught because the official relationship is not as close. Many in Brazil’s current leadership do not see the U.S. as a friend, while many U.S. officials see in Brazil’s policies an outdated zero-sum approach to geopolitics that hampers collaboration. These perceptions already represented barriers that needed to be overcome, and the spying revelations didn’t help matters. Brazil is one of the world’s largest multi-ethnic democracies and its social values and outlook are overwhelmingly Western. As its economy opens to facilitate growth and to sustain gains in social equity, Brazil’s interests will increasingly converge with those of the U.S. As that happens, Brazil will be an increasingly important player whose success we seek, whose partnership we need, and whose respect we want.

All of these aims are much harder to achieve now. Voices in Brazil opposing broader bilateral cooperation have been strengthened, to the disadvantage of both countries. The cancellation of Rousseff’s state visit to the U.S. was more than a skipped dinner date: it was a setback to specific initiatives that would have advanced a closer bilateral agenda.

Beyond bilateral relations, the NSA leaks have, more broadly, corroded trust and confidence in the U.S. around the world, harming a number of our longer-term global interests.

Trans-atlantic security cooperation is the most effective networked generator of global public goods. Unprecedented levels of information sharing between intelligence and law enforcement agencies, based on trust, have leveraged shared values to protect our societies from threats new and old. But due to leader-spying revelations, public opinion in Europe is turning increasingly skeptical of that cooperation. Exemplifying that trend, in October the European Parliament chose to freeze a financial transactions information-sharing pact between the EU and the U.S. that was aimed at tracking terrorism funding.

The revelations have also impeded progress toward a U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement, perhaps the single most strategically important Trans-Atlantic project today. Anger over U.S. spying also now drives European demands for establishing more stringent data privacy standards—standards the U.S. is unlikely to accept.

American businesses—particularly in advanced electronics—will also be hobbled for years by suspicion that their products have been compromised by the NSA. This will affect countless procurement decisions. Many foreign businesses and governments are already re-evaluating their relations with U.S. Internet service providers. Commercial fallout includes Brazil’s decision to choose Saab over Boeing in deal for 32 fighter jets—a loss for Boeing of $4.2 billion.

The fallout from the Snowden leaks is also accelerating America’s loss of control of the global Internet agenda. Some may cheer, but U.S. values of transparency, free inquiry and open access to information have largely shaped the global web, even if they have sometimes been resisted. That resistance will grow now, as restrictionists, many with mixed motives, invoke a supposed need for data localization and a host of other controls to protect information and rights. The revelations seem certain to strengthen a trend toward a more fragmented and nationally regulated Internet, imposing costs in economic growth, innovation and personal freedoms on all societies. The effects will fall disproportionately on emerging countries, smaller businesses and marginalized groups, for whom the Internet has provided the means to join a global economy or find strength in a global community.

The greatest casualty of all, however, may be the fall from the moral high ground on which the U.S. was able to oppose escalating and increasingly sophisticated cyber espionage—especially commercial—by China and others. More vulnerable now to charges of double standards, the U.S. will find it substantially harder to oppose and stigmatize foreign governments that use the Internet to steal proprietary business information and conduct other aggressive operations in cyberspace—the great strategic battleground of this century.

As a practical matter, the U.S. will have to deal with the fallout from the information revealed, and yet to be revealed, for some time to come. Yet the challenge also represents a huge opportunity. Washington and its allies can use this moment of global reflection to forge new standards for behavior that can simultaneously sustain key values and protect national security. This should start with greater focus on embedding trust at every level of international engagement. We need reliable new protocols for information sharing that accommodate true needs for secrecy, but have solid, legitimate and sustainable political foundations.

This process seems to be already under way. Around the world, senior U.S. officials are being put on the spot by tough, specific and unprecedented questions by top foreign officials—and there isn’t much tolerance for bureaucratic answers. More broadly, American leaders in the executive and legislative branches need to do a better job of calibrating, updating and overseeing our tools of statecraft. U.S. intelligence agencies have critical missions. The better they and other institutions are at adapting to constantly shifting terrain and prioritizing, the better off America will be.

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