Spying on Friends


The United States and Germany may be friends with benefits, but as Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis would tell you, any functional FWB relationship excludes his creepily reading your text messages from said list of ‘benefits’.

Nein, Angela is not happy. While she is obligated to lay down the law by publically expressing her anger and chasing the N.S.A fly off her wall, the outrage is more about boundaries than spying in absolute. Here lies the non-technical distinction between the act of wiretapping the German Chancellor’s phone and the overall idea of engaging in any-and-all spying on an ally. Sure, Merkel may not have known that her device itself was being targeted by the American Embassy, located on the other side of the Brandenburg Gate, but do you believe that she really had no idea that Americans were accessing some German information they had no permitted access to? Talk of ‘broken trust’ is a mix of fictional disillusionment and mere sentimental blabber; despite any gentleman’s agreement or international intelligence-gathering norms, no head of state is naïve enough to think that they are not being somewhat preyed on by foes and by friends.


Amidst current tension in the American-German FWB relationship, Angela’s cautious and vigilant gaze is not so tender. (washingtonpost.com)
Amidst current tension in the American-German FWB relationship, Angela’s cautious and vigilant gaze is not so tender. (washingtonpost.com)


Which begs the question: are there moral boundaries to intelligence gathering?

We can break down this question into the logic that wiretapping allies would be immoral if we agreed upon 1) the definition of espionage as an act of hostility and 2) the notion that norms of alliance imply that allies should not, except in exceptional circumstances, engage in acts of hostility targeting each other.

But is espionage a nefarious, hostile act? Or is it a nasty but inevitable tendency that underlies all so-called friendships? Unless two hypothetical countries achieve a complete convergence of interests, there will always be certain areas where competition and conflict of interests exist. Therefore, an alliance can be viewed as an overall agreement of cooperation with pockets of tension, disagreement and uncertainty. Do the pockets of tension justify espionage of top allies? After all, as any realist theorist of international relations would say, does a state not ultimately act to pursue its self-interest and guarantee its survival? Are alliances themselves not created as means to an end—the end being self-interest of any member of any alliance—in the first place? Consequently, wouldn’t it be incredibly naïve to imagine a rational state would give up the opportunity to obtain a strategic interest (the end) simply out of respect for norms of an alliance (the means)?

Of course, the cost and interests of spying on allies must incorporate the calculation of risk of exposure (enter Snowden), for a diplomatic crisis over a cellphone could create setbacks in a strategic alliance much graver than whatever tidbits of leverage an all-capturing rooftop antennae in Berlin may capture. Ultimately, the wedge driven by spying on allies is not so much about signs of distrust or invasions of privacy as it is about a significant reduction of leverage during negotiations (for the spied-on side) and a manipulation of power dynamics (in the interest of the spy). As in, you don’t know that I know, and I could force your hand if I wanted to. And on an even vainer level, it shows that you can shove your nose deeper into my business than I can into yours—sheer imbalance of technological prowess. For Germans mumble and rumble, but note that they don’t engage in accusatory hysterics. Not in the least because they fear an American tu quoque (appeal to hypocrisy), for who would believe that our Deutsch friends are not engaging in a little eavesdropping themselves? The vicious-tongued may even say that the only reason why allies are not reciprocating the scope of U.S. spying is not for lack of will, but for lack of skill.

Stepping back from the Mobiltelefon scandal, let’s put aside spying ethics and etiquette for a minute and inspect ‘spying on friends’ on a purely theoretical level. Let me construct a case for why, in a certain sense, intel-collection on allies is a self-selecting process that makes the stolen intel especially valuable. A key distinction between Iran and the U.K. is that the Iranian government does not regularly and voluntarily report information to the U.S., while the U.K. does. Very deep-running practices of intelligence-sharing take place between allies. What Britain decides to share with the U.S., however, is the result of a filtering process that determines what is shareable with the U.S. It is therefore necessarily implied that what is left out of intelligence-sharing is either completely inconsequential or, on the much juicier opposite extreme, in the ally’s best interest for the U.S. not to know.

Which is to say, such intelligence is of especially high interest for the U.S. to know. You can even bring it to the deductive level and compare the host of information gathered covertly about an ally and the information volunteered to you by said ally: some seemingly neutral or innocuous fact that was intentionally omitted may put you on the trail to a lot more leverage than you were previously aware of.

Back in the real world, our European allies probably do not have anything that exciting or scandalous to hide, but it remains that the rationale behind spying on friends makes a lot of sense—until you get caught red-handed. What I fundamentally question, though, is the notion of ‘friends’ and ‘allies’ in international relations—can we discuss the ethical treatment of allies when it is dubious that alliances stem from anything more than cold pragmatism to begin with?


Aube Rey Lescure ’15 is in Davenport College. She writes on the European Union, particularly France, the United Kingdom, and Germany, focusing on both significant internal events and cross-Atlantic relations. Contact her at aube.reylescure@yale.edu.