Spying on Friends

“Friends don’t spy on one another,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel two years ago, when new NSA leaks revealed that the US signals intelligence agency had snooped on her and other German politicians’ mobile phones. Around the same time it had been revealed that the NSA had targeted leading French politicians, including Presidents Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, and François Hollande, as well. 

Perhaps friends shouldn’t spy on one another, but they do. Once, when a US director of national intelligence (who shall remain nameless) first met his German counterpart, the head of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), he inquired in a friendly manner: “You keep an eye on us too, don’t you?” A person at the meeting told me about it, not in an irate manner but to point out that friends do keep an eye on one another—in addition to spying together on other countries. In order to maintain trust in an ally, a country and its intelligence agencies want to verify that their ally is trustworthy. Indeed, despite the NSA revelations, the BND and the NSA kept cooperating—until two years ago, when the cooperation came to light.

Facing an irate public, Merkel and her government had to take a stand against the NSA when the snooping on them came out. But anybody dealing with sensitive information knows not to share it over unencrypted mobile phones. The phone the NSA hacked, for example, is one Merkel only used for matters relating to her political party; for more sensitive matters she uses an encrypted phone.

But now Germany’s governing coalition plans to ban the BND from spying in the EU altogether. It is, of course, a worthy confidence-building measure, especially since the revelations earlier this month that the BND has spied on foreign politicians, including French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and one of Germany’s own ambassadors. But spying is what an espionage agency does. And if one is not supposed to spy on friends, who defines what constitutes a friend? Among nations as among individuals, the line between friend and enemy is fluid. Not even all EU members are always friends.

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