Friends spying on friends is no big deal

Two countries with good ties can snoop on each other. It is an open secret that one of the tasks of a foreign mission is to keep the home government ‘informed’

The act of spying on friends rests on an old adage popular in international relations: ‘There can be no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, but only permanent interests’. Pic: Pixabay

In a world full of hypocrisies, suddenly erupts a hoopla of Denmark helping its close ally United States to spy on other European government and leaders. The Danish state broadcaster, DR, has maintained that the American National Security Agency (NSA) used a partnership with Denmark’s foreign intelligence unit to keep a tab on neighboring countries like Germany, France, Sweden and Norway and to spy on top leaders like the German Chancellor, its Foreign Minister and the Opposition leader.

Citing unnamed sources with access to the 2015 internal investigation, DR has said the undercover operation happened between 2012 and 2014. It is said that Denmark, which hosts major landing stations for undersea internet cables, was used by the US to intercept calls and texts of officials in neighboring countries.

It is stupid at best and silly at worst to believe that something outrageous has taken place in nation state behavior for the first time or to pretend that allies and friends do not involve in this game of keeping an eye on institutions and individuals. In fact, just last year the same Danish Broadcaster put out a story that said the NSA had taken advantage of a surveillance collaboration to spy on private companies, especially  in the defence sector as it pertained to a tender floated by Copenhagen for a new jet fighter. Denmark eventually signed up 27 F-35s from US’ Lockheed Martin, beating the competition from the Eurofighter and Sweden’s Gripen.

The pretension that friends do not snoop on friends is a stretch that even serious leaders and officials will not harbor even for a second. It is an open secret that one of the tasks of a foreign mission is to keep the home government “ informed”; and it is a well-known fact that diplomats come with varying degrees of accreditations, some will be known officially and others still are not hard to fathom. And it is the business of the home government to be fully aware of the goings on in a friendly country; or at times even curious at a potential changing political landscape and the implications for bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. It becomes even more tasking if a democratic nation has a friendly relationship with a country that seemingly is civilian in nature but in the firm grip of brass hats.


The act of spying on friends rests on an old adage popular in international relations: ‘There can be no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, but only permanent interests’. Hence, the need to keep a tab on potential changes. “We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow,” is a quote that is attributed either to Henry Temple or Lord Palmerston.

“I think there’s a degree of hypocrisy among the Europeans to say, ‘Oh, my gosh, the Americans are spying!’ Well, so are they,” quipped Peter Earnest, formerly with the Central Intelligence Agency and the Founding Director of the International Spy Museum in Washington. Earnest was referring to the uproar caused by the leaks of Edward Snowden in 2013.

Anyone heard of Jonathan Jay Pollard, a former intelligence analyst for the United States, who pleaded guilty for spying and providing top secret classified information to Israel? On the face of it such an act would seem impossible — two very close allies locked in a national security breach that ended with Pollard getting life in prison under the Espionage Act for passing classified information, that too to a very close ally. After spending close to 30 years in prison, Pollard was on parole for five years when President Donald Trump’s Justice Department refused to extend his parole making him a free person to go and settle down in Israel in 2020. Several top officials in Democratic and Republican administrations withstood political requests from Israeli leaders to release Pollard on account of the severe security damage he had caused to the United States. So much for allies!

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What academics, historians and analysts have repeatedly pointed out over the years is that spying by allies and friends over one another is not to be confused with hostile espionage during the Cold War era between the United States and the then Soviet Union or Moscow and Washington competing with one another to adversely target a foreign leader who was perceived to be slipping from their grasp. And in the past the United States has locked horns with Taiwan and Japan—close allies in the Asia Pacific—on industrial or economic espionage and in the process targeting major corporate and technology giants.

Max Boot, an analyst and military historian, once said: “I have a word of advice for American allies outraged by alleged NSA spying on their leaders: Grow up. That means you Germany. You, too, France. And you, Brazil. Mexico, too… Does the NSA spy on your leaders? Probably. Do you spy on leaders of allied states including the United States? Probably. You just don’t have the resources or capability to spy as effectively as the NSA does. But if you did, you would.”

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The world of intelligence is not about to be taken down or dismantled because of one revelation, known or otherwise; neither are countries in Europe and North America about to give up on a practice that has been going on for centuries. What started off as a signals intelligence in the post World War Two era to keep track of the goings on in the then Soviet Union, the Five Eyes countries (US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) became Nine Eyes with the addition of Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Norway and eventually Fourteen Eyes with the further addition of Germany, Belgium, Italy, Sweden and Spain. But as well meaning people have pointed out, the big problem with these alliances of Eyes, is the loss of privacy by proxy—keeping an ‘eye’ on your own citizens with the help of an alliance partner!

A former senior journalist in Washington covering North America and United Nations, the writer is currently a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication in  the College of Science and Humanities at SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai.