The feigned outrage in Berlin – but mostly in Paris – at the USA’s proxy use of Denmark’s intelligence services to intercept submarine cable traffic to spy on European leaders raises more than a wry smile. Allies have always spied on allies for legitimate reasons. Few have done so, and continue to do so, as much as the French.
As president of France and commander-in-chief of the French armed forces, Emmanuel Macron will be perfectly aware of this. The French foreign intelligence service, DGSE, runs an interception programme on submarine cables that listens in to potential enemies and friends in similar fashion to the US National Security Agency or Britain’s GCHQ.
The French army’s Emeraude programme intercepts and deciphers rivals and friends’ encrypted international diplomatic and industrial communications from its listening posts around the world on remnants of the French empire. Indeed France is a member of the second most important western signals intelligence network known as ‘Nine Eyes’. Its partners, other than the Famous Five, are the Netherlands, Norway and…Denmark.
For someone with such an acute sense of history, Macron knows that France has a long history of intercepting and decoding friends and allies’ diplomatic traffic, or ‘safecracking’ their embassies. And the French have been excellent at it, partly as a result of their high-grade mathematicians able to crack sophisticated diplomatic codes.
Before the First World War, the French were reading the diplomatic traffic of most of the European powers. In the 1920s, the French and British regularly intercepted and deciphered each other’s diplomatic correspondence.
In the late 1930s, with the prospect of war, the French (and British) wished to know whether they could enlist the USA as an ally in an eventual war against Germany. It motivated them to bug and ‘safe-crack’ American embassies in Paris, London and elsewhere. From 1937, French intelligence services spied on France’s quasi-ally Belgium to discover how her recent declaration of neutrality might impact France in the event of war. These examples hint at why states spy on their friends and allies.
In the same way that nature abhors a vacuum, states abhor surprise. They seek to guard against a surprise move from their potential enemies, but also their allies, through intelligence gathering.
Lord Palmerston’s words of realpolitik hint at the problem:
‘We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and these interests it is our duty to follow.’
Wars are usually fought as coalitions; they are inter-allied. In peacetime, one builds alliances for the eventuality of war. But is it not legitimate for a state to wish to know whether one’s ally, or potential ally, is dependable and loyal? Should they not seek to know whether their political commitment to take up arms is credible, whether their armed forces and economy are up to the job?
In short, is it not fair game to wish to know the strengths and weaknesses of one’s ally before it is too late? The great fifth century BC strategist Sun Tzu taught us in his Art of War to know oneself before you know your enemy. Are allies not an extension of oneself?
Of course, embassies, defence attachés and liaison officers exist to communicate with one’s allies and uncover their true nature. But such honourable emissaries cannot always divine the true weaknesses of an ally or know the extent to which the information they share is objective. In 1939, Churchill reckoned France had the greatest army in Europe and France signed a pact with London not to make a separate peace…
In alliances, whatever the common aim, individual states still have different interests, different timescales for achieving them and different breakpoints.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the Dutch intelligence services were more preoccupied with spying on Nato members than Warsaw Pact states precisely to gauge their reliability. The German foreign intelligence service, the BND, also spied on US politicians under Obama, apparently preoccupied with Washington’s commitment to Nato. Today, how should the USA feel about German politicians continued support for Nord Stream 2? This is where spying on friends and allies finds its justification.
Then there is the question of uncovering espionage within an alliance. The Cambridge Five spy ring did enormous damage not just to the UK, but to US and Nato interests. Should allies be allowed to monitor their partners in order to seek out potential foreign spies and test their systems? This would seem to be fair game amongst Five Eyes partners. Better to have the Americans spying on you than the Russians or Chinese.
Spying amongst friends and allies is commonplace. The moral shock from European political leaders is confected and hypocritical, and particularly so from one of the world’s foremost intelligence powers with a long history of spying on friends, France.
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