Why We Must Spy on Our Allies

December 4, 2013 Topic: IntelligenceSecurity Region: United States

Why We Must Spy on Our Allies

Sometimes vital American interests are implicated in what our friends keep secret.

The recent uproar over the NSA’s alleged tapping of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone has brought to a crescendo cries that U.S. intelligence collection activities have gone too far—and not just at home, but abroad. Influential members of Congress and leading opinion makers are going so far as to call for a prohibition on spying on U.S. allies. Indeed, news reports suggest that the president may ban at least some forms of such surveillance (and may have already taken steps in that direction), and that the American people might well support such a step.

This would be a big mistake. No doubt there is or has been some imprudent and perhaps even inappropriate spying on allies. And it is up to us to keep such activities secret or, at the very least, out of the headlines. But as a rule, the United States should be prepared to collect intelligence on its allies.

Why? The U.S. government should collect foreign intelligence to fulfill its most important role, which is to protect the security, liberty and well-being of its citizens. Collecting intelligence on our allies is sometimes necessary to fulfill this obligation, because what allies do and what happens within their borders can and regularly does have a major impact on Americans. Let’s remember what being a U.S. ally actually means: that American citizens are committed to defending these countries with their resources and ultimately with their lives. So, since our allies see fit to ask us to defend them, we have a reasonable interest in knowing what they are up to.

Now, if our allies were perfectly transparent and straightforward with us, there would be no problem. But they aren’t. Nor should we be particularly surprised or offended by this. After all, our own government doesn’t meet this standard. Bear in mind that Congress regularly complains that the executive branch is hiding information from it and that, even within the executive, information sharing is a huge challenge .

More to the point, nobody expects allies to be fully transparent or entirely open with each other. After all, alliances are mutual-defense pacts grounded in conceptions of self-interest broadly understood, not political unions or pledges of Kantian fidelity. Allies remain separate governments and pursue their own interests. And they pursue those interests in ways at best opaque to their allies and, quite often, by actively trying to hide their activities even from friendly governments.


This means that there are situations in which the U.S. government has a legitimate need to know what our allies are up to or what is going on within their borders but in which our allies don’t or can’t know what is going on or won’t be transparent with us. It is in these situations that it is not only appropriate for but incumbent upon the U.S. government to collect information on or about our allies.

What do these situations look like? In their most innocent form, things may happen within the territory or even the governments of allies that we may care about but which our ally is ignorant of or unable or unwilling to track down. For instance, allies may be ignorant of a threat to us (and possibly them)—recall that the 9/11 attacks were partially plotted out in Hamburg. Or allies may be incapable of collecting intelligence on agreed, known threats—such as the Philippines’ difficulties in dealing with the terrorist Abu Sayyaf Group . Or we may see a threat where our allies don’t, blocking cooperative action and intelligence sharing—witness U.S.-European differences in attitudes towards the threats posed by Hezbollah and Hamas. Or our allies may lack the resolve we see as crucial to dealing with a threat—see “ major non-NATO ally ” Pakistan’s underwhelming initiatives against radical jihadists.

Nor are such concerns limited to terrorism. Foreign governments might be unwittingly penetrated by hostile intelligence services, as Germany was during the Cold War, or serve as unknowing transit routes for proliferation or other noxious activities, or be hobbled by radical or anti-American factions.

But such situations may arise for less innocent reasons as well. Being allied doesn’t entail always harmonizing policies, and it doesn’t mean always telling the whole truth. In fact, our allies can and often do disagree with us and they often pursue policies we don’t like—and they sometimes do so on matters that implicate our dollars, our reputation, and, most importantly, our lives. And they may pursue these policies opaquely or in secret.

Just take Germany, the focus of the current controversy. Germany is one of the most important and steadfast U.S. allies, and we should make every effort to keep it as one. Yet since World War II, Germany has seriously considered pursuing its own nuclear weapons capability, flirted with unilateral rapprochement with the Soviet Union, stirred European fears during reunification in the 1990s, and stridently opposed U.S. action against Iraq in the 2000s. All of these issues, and many more like them, were questions in which the United States had highly important interests at stake and thus very good reasons to want to know how Germany might behave.