Edward Snowden recently said in an interview that “the mission is already accomplished”, referring to the changes and re-assessments in US surveillance policy against targets both foreign and domestic. His revelations have drawn the ire of many world leaders, which highlighted US espionage against allies such as Germany, and relatively friendly countries such as Brazil. This is of course completely understandable- no country wants to be spied on any more than an individual wants people to know their credit card or social security numbers. Just this weekend, President Obama gave a personal pledge to Angela Merkel that there would be no ore US spying on Germany, describing previous actions as “a mistake.”
In terms of international relations theory, I personally adhere to what is known as the English School, which is essentially a middle ground between the poles of Liberalism (the idea that countries can and will cooperate for the common good) and Realism (the notion that countries will act only in their own self-interests and that one state’s gain is another state’s loss). Insofar as I adhere to this balanced view, I do tend to lean more toward the Realist side (in spite of some of my previous writings, such as calls for greater Russia-US cooperation). My belief in this theory is based upon the conclusion that I’ve reached that there are some areas in which countries will often cooperate, such as development and human security. Espionage, however, is one of those areas in which is really and truly is every country for themselves. In this there is no honor, and everything is fair.
In the same vein that President Obama apologized to Germany for American espionage against its major ally, Obama nevertheless stated that the US will continue to gather information of interest to know what other governments’ intentions are. "There is no point in having an intelligence service if you are restricted to the things that you can read in the New York Times or Der Spiegel" the President said. (Note: there is a branch of intelligence-gathering known as “open source” intelligence, or OSINT for short, that entails things like reading other countries’ newspapers, etc., and the CIA does hire analysts for this specific purpose. Needless to say, this type of intelligence is rather limited, but it is still a part of the intelligence process).
Some of the US’s strongest allies have engaged in espionage and intelligence gathering against the US. My guess as to why Hebrew is listed as a critical language by the FBI (which is the organization tasked with the bulk of US civilian counter-intelligence operations) is because of the vast Israeli espionage operations against the US, famously personified by former Navy intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard, and more recently exemplified by Israeli eavesdropping on US telecommunications. Technically speaking, the US does not spy on Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. Yet the truth of the matter is, I have often wondered if, in the shadowy, darkest and most profound depths of the CIA or MI6, there is a tiny cadre of people tasked with spying on even these most important allies.
France’s main civilian intelligence agency, the DGSE, was also found to be conducting corporate and economic espionage against the US in the 1990’s, particularly against firms such as Texas Instruments and ABM. (There is a famous case when a young US Marine tackled a French minister at an arms show when the minister tried to wipe his hand against a US stealth aircraft. Had the minister been allowed to touch it, he could have collected a sample of the coating which gave the fighter jet its stealth quality). Of course the biggest targets of intelligence-gathering and espionage for the US are China and Russia--and this intel-gathering goes both ways. The latter want our trade and technology secrets, while we in the US want to know what they’re up to, what their capabilities are and how much of the dirt they already have on us, etc.
The aforementioned points highlight the other side of espionage known as economic or industrial espionage. Many may be more inclined to associate this term with Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko using an ambitious Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) to gather insider information on stocks. But this is not simply an issue of Wall Street hotshots and the SEC. Corporate espionage is a very real part of current international espionage, and its execution is not limited to other companies (for more details, check out Luke Bencie’s 2013 book Among Enemies). Governments are just as prone and privy to corporate, economic and industrial espionage as are private companies. In fact, one of the major concerns Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff had was that the US government was conducting such espionage against Brazilian energy company Petrobras; while it’s not, strictly speaking, the same thing as Mobil Oil or Total trying to get inside information on a prospective deal on upstream development operations, it is an example of government espionage and business espionage blurring the lines. Foreign governments are just as interested in the activities of foreign corporations and their subsidiaries as they are the activities of other foreign governments.
As long as there are corporations, countries and governments, there will be spying among them as well. This is not to say that “everybody’s doing it, so it’s okay.” Nevertheless, revelations that the US has conducted espionage against treaty allies is not the absolute worst thing that could happen. It may be a breach of trust, but it is not a direct, vicious assault on another country, either. Revelations that the French government conducted espionage against the US have not unduly damaged the France-US relationship. Those who may point to the less-than-smooth Franco-American saga should note that, from the French side, one does not need to be in lock-step with their friends or partners 100% of the time in order to still be friends. My guess is that sooner or later this embarrassing revelation about US espionage against allies will blow over, and that it will not likely cause irreparable damage to our relationships with our cherished allies.