Fall - 2013 Spy1

Published on October 28th, 2013


Spying America

By Jo Jakobsen, NTNU

That America is spying on its adversaries is well known. Recent disclosures have also revealed that America is spying on its friends as well. Friend or foe: America spies because it can, and because it is in its interest to do it. 

A traitor in the eyes of some, a hero for others, Edward Snowden has in any event caused a lot of diplomatic trouble for his home country in recent weeks. By leaking vast amounts of information on U.S. surveillance practices that he obtained while working as a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), Snowden has left us all with the impression that his country is going to enormous lengths trying to gather information on the capacities, preferences, beliefs, strategies, and inner thoughts of friend and foe alike.

Recent reports inform us that the NSA has, inter alia, systematically monitored telephone conversations of 35 world leaders. German Chancellor Angela Merkel – whose sundry phones have allegedly been bugged by her American allies since 2002 – is by no means the only victim of the practices of Washington’s formidable intelligence machinery.

Spying is rightly referred to as the world’s second-oldest profession. And, like prostitution, it won’t ever disappear – because in a world inhabited with inherently imperfect human beings and equally imperfect states, the demand for such services will always be present.

Spying often pays, that much is obvious. The world consists of around 195 independent states, the relations among which are not always cordial. Enemies – current and potential – are plentiful. This is particularly true for big and powerful states, considering that the breadth and scope of interests of any given state tends to hinge upon the power of that state: small states naturally care mostly about themselves and their immediate neighborhood; while large states usually take an active interest in events and developments across much of the globe.

No state is bigger or more powerful than America, and no state is close to America when it comes to being a global power with global interests. The U.S. has economic links with practically the whole world; it provides leadership to countless of international institutions on countless of issues; its global military presence is unparalleled (it has around 1,000 military bases abroad; for the sake of comparison, that is about 1,000 more than China); and it has an extraordinarily extensive and elaborate set of diplomatic ties with virtually every nation on earth. No single state has more enemies than the United States. And no single state has more friends than the United States.

Spying on your enemies makes perfect sense. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union each maintained formidable foreign intelligence services each of which had a major impact on the evolution of the superpower conflict.

Disregarding covert action (a specialty of the CIA and its Russian counterpart, the KGB), intelligence gathering (i.e. spying) and intelligence analysis contributed in two ways. First, spying was considered necessary in order to gauge as correctly as possible the capabilities – primarily the military capabilities – of the enemy. How many nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles do the Ruskies have? Leaders in Washington would ask their intelligence services, such as the NSA or, more often, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The CIA, in turn, would answer to the best of their abilities. Sometimes they actually had little clue – as was the case in the late 1950s. But then they usually redoubled their efforts, eventually coming up with more accurate information.

Only a few months before the nerve-wrecking 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, Washington had, to its suprise, learned from its spooks that Moscow actually lagged far behind in the strategic arms race. In the face-off over Cuba, that information mattered hugely. The United States knew with a great deal of confidence that in the event that the crisis – which concerned the Soviet deployment of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in Cuba – escalated into armed conflict and, as was quite possible, nuclear war, the U.S. would very likely win that war (to the extent that “winning” made any sense in a nuclear context).

This meant that, in the bargaining process, the U.S. could push its interests (which ultimately involved getting the Russians to withdraw their missiles) much harder than they would have dared to do had they still believed that Moscow was their nuclear peer. Strategic and military superiority – and knowledge of that superiority obtained by way of spying – greatly assisted Washington in reaching its objectives over Cuba.

Measuring capabilities is only one of two tasks, however. The second is estimating the intentions of the other side. In 1962, for example, knowledge of the limitations of Soviet nuclear-weapons capacity was not sufficient to give Washington the necessary confidence that bargaining hard would resolve the whole crisis to their own advantage. What was also required was some sort of estimate of Russian resolve – that is, Russian intentions. How far was Moscow willing to go to push its own interests over Cuba? Was the issue so important to Moscow that it was perhaps willing to go all the way? – where “all the way” meant a nuclear war that it would in all likelihood “lose.”

If the answer to the above question was “yes,” the U.S. would rationally have had to scale down its bargaining pressure, therethrough accepting that the Soviet missiles would stay in Cuba. In the event, however, the U.S. did have intelligence information to the effect that Moscow was not too eager to go to the brink of nuclear war. This knowledge added to U.S. confidence, thus helping settling the issue largely in Washington’s favor.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is perhaps an extreme example. But the general principle remains constant: Intelligence information – obtained through various forms of spying – about the capabilities and intentions of other states is a vital element in the security policies for any major state. The U.S. intelligence community today works painstakingly hard to obtain information about, say, China’s military capabilities, and about Chinese leaders’ current and future intentions, positions, and strategies on issues that are deemed vital to U.S. interests (and remember that the U.S., as the world’s superpower, defines its interests in a remarkably broad way).

And to obtain such information is extremely difficult. And it is difficult because China conceals the information. And China conceals this information because it behooves its national interests to conceal it. The interests of the U.S. and China do not in any way neatly align. This is how it is in international politics.

And, perhaps somewhat more surprisingly, this is the way it works between “friends” in international politics as well. Germany and the United States are the closest of friends. Yet the United States still keeps a spy office in Berlin. And, by recent estimates, it keeps similar spy stations in about 80 of the world’s states. Some of these are tasked with gathering information that can assist the U.S. in its long so-called war on terror. Others conduct covert operations; although outright regime-toppling by way of CIA operations has pretty much gone out of fashion, assisting opposition movements and other “troublemakers” in regimes the U.S. dislikes happens on a daily basis.

Sometimes spy services kill people – like Iranian nuclear physicists (although those killings were likely conducted not by the Americans but by Israel’s highly competent foreign-intelligence arm, the Mossad). In other instances they are happy just to damage things that are deemed worth damaging. In June 2010, the computer worm Stuxnet (the result of a joint U.S.–Israeli operation) infected Iran’s uranium-enrichment centrifuges, apparently setting that country’s nuclear program back at least a few months, perhaps a year or two.

And the purpose is always the same when you let your spies and intelligence people do these things: It is to further your own country’s vital interests – which is really the same as increasing your own country’s relative power in the big game of international politics. Stuxnet decreases Iran’s relative power, thereby automatically increasing U.S. and Israeli power. The same presumably goes for any Iranian nuclear physicist that is blown up. Furthermore, information about terrorist plots are uncovered more often than most of us are aware of – and that job is done by intelligence services. If such plots are effectuated, U.S. (and other states’) key national interests are damaged. That’s why the U.S. (and other states) works so tirelessly to uncover them. Because it is in its national interest to do so.

But now I’m talking about the enemies of the United States. Why does Washington also spy on its friends? The answer is the same: Because it furthers U.S. interests. And U.S. interests – this is an important point – do not equal, say, German interests, even if the two are the closest of friends. Germany is a sovereign country, and a major power to boot. Germany has its own ideas about how the world should be shaped. Chancellor Merkel is tasked with furthering German security interests – some of which overlap with U.S. interests, some of which don’t – not Washington’s; and she is supposed to care for Germans’ economic interests, not the economic interests of Americans.

It is important for America to get as firm an idea as possible about what Angela Merkel thinks and believes; what her foreign policy strategies are; what her position and strategies on the European financial crisis are; whether or not she would be happy to see Greece exit the EU; what her preferences are concerning the many issues on the agenda of the EU–U.S. Free Trade Agreement talks; how she really thinks about Russia’s Czar Vladimir Putin; whether she wants to keep the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons that are stationed in Germany; how she and her fellow Germans would react if the U.S. were to bomb Syria or, more importantly, Iran; whether the U.S. so-called “pivot to Asia” will sharpen the will of the Germans to work to increase Europe’s security independence from America; and so on and so forth…

The point of the preceding paragraph is to highlight some of the issues where Germany’s position and intentions aren’t known in their entirety to the Americans, and where Germany’s position and intentions matter to a great degree to American interests.

The true intentions of others (even your friends) are usually significantly clouded by the convoluted language of diplomacy, by the sheer fact that the other (even your friend) has his or her own interests to attend to, and by the reality that human beings – and the relations among them – function in a way that ensures that absolute sincerity and honesty has little or no place in social settings. Bugging the telephone(s) of Angela Merkel is not as important to the U.S. as is infecting Iran’s nuclear program. But bugging her phone(s) is still deemed useful. Better knowing a little than nothing.

Every major power does the same thing, even Germany itself. They all eavesdrop on each other; they steel technological secrets from other states, sometimes even friends; they conduct covert operations; they blow up things from time to time; they recruit useful agents abroad; they keep a close eye on suspicious blogs, and they can probably read your e-mails. Governments spy on their own citizens; of course they then also spy on other states.

But nobody does it better or more comprehensively than the Americans. The extensiveness of intelligence activities undertaken by any state is closely related to the power of that state. For example, China is, by most accounts, the second most powerful state in the world – and China’s spy services are becoming increasingly ubiquitous and notorious as China’s power continues to rise. They do have a long, long way to go, however, before they get even close to rivaling the U.S. in terms of aggregate state power – or in terms of the breadth and scope of intelligence services. Right now, it is probably fair to say that China, unlike the U.S., at least does not spy on its friends. Then again, it likely would if it had had any…

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