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.
And of course Germany is not a special case. Other
Nor are these concerns merely historical. There are plenty of instances today in which American interests could be affected, potentially seriously so, by the decisions of allies with whom our relations are not characterized by translucent openness. To name just a few: Japan and the Philippines are engaged in fervent
This is not to say that the United States should conduct unrestricted or even necessarily very active spying on its allies. And there are certainly allies which we might well reasonably conclude are not worth spying on, such as the vaunted “Five Eyes” group. And it is certainly not to say that we should conduct spying designed to hurt or undermine our allies—that would defeat the point of our alliances and would be against the better angels of our nature. We want our allies to do well and to maintain strong and positive relations with them. For these reasons, we should work through regular channels where and when possible to understand what our allies are up to and what is going on within their borders. This is both sensible, given the dangers of getting caught and the attendant political blowback we see exemplified in the Merkel imbroglio, but is also in accord with our political traditions of promoting open and rule-bound government.
But at the same time, we must be realistic: our allies have acted, act, and will continue to act secretly or opaquely in ways that materially affect our interests. So we have good reasons to know what they are up to and spying may be the best or only way to get at that information.
This need has the firmest domestic legal justification in the Constitution’s mandate to the government to protect Americans. And it’s worth remembering that our Founding Fathers thought spying on and manipulating our allies was not just appropriate but necessary; there is a reason why the CIA sees Ben Franklin, whose machinations in Paris were instrumental to our successful Revolution, as the Founding Father of covert action. But our justifications are not confined merely to our own self-interest or traditions. Rather, an obvious additional justification is that our allies spy on us, and often do so far more enthusiastically than we do.
But a more principled reason than “you do it too” is that American intelligence collection is a crucial part of America’s broader security posture, and that security posture has underwritten not only our own but also our allies’ security for almost seven decades now. We don’t just collect intelligence so that we can secure ourselves; we collect intelligence so that we can secure the many countries we’re committed to defending. And doing that effectively means more than just collecting intelligence on our potential enemies. Bear in mind that many of our allies have feared not only the Soviet Union or Iran or North Korea—but have also feared each other. Thus a crucial part of U.S. security policy since 1945 has been managing and reducing tensions among our allies, including allies with bitter memories and clashing interests. Once again, take the case of Germany and remember that NATO’s first Secretary General summarized common European thinking in describing NATO’s basic purpose: to “keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.”
Nor is this merely an historical problem—observe the deep tensions today between U.S. allies South Korea and Japan or between Israel and the Gulf nations. And just as overweening American military power has over time reassured many of our allies that they could rely on the United States to insure them against the possibility of resurgent German, Japanese or Turkish military power, so too do formidable U.S. intelligence collection capabilities contribute to that reassurance. Nor do the Germanys and Japans of our alliance structure suffer from this. Quite the contrary, they have no better way of persuading their neighbors of their good faith than American oversight.
It is crucial to maintain our ability to spy on allies, but misguided excessive pressure from our allies might well persuade us to make a bad decision to constrain or even suspend this ability. We should therefore not be shy about making these points, both here and in the international arena. Of course, these arguments presume some degree of trustworthiness and even benevolence on the part of the United States. But is such presumption unreasonable? Has the United States used its military and intelligence power for or against the interests of its allies? Have they benefited or suffered from it? Certainly we should not be given carte blanche—as Americans, we are believers in checks and balances. But these points do suggest that our allies should think very carefully before pressing the United States too far on this matter.
Ultimately, though, Americans should decide for themselves whether their government should be prepared to spy on allies. One option would be to return to the policy of “gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail” that we (at least partially) adhered to in the 1930s, a decade not distinguished by the wisdom of its foreign policies. But while a public prohibition on spying on our allies would certainly represent a noisy gesture of our idealism, it would not represent a judicious one. The other option would be to retain our ability to collect intelligence on or about our allies, but to redouble our intention to do so only for sound and defensible reasons. The latter course, while perhaps a somewhat deflating admission of the enduring imperfection of life in the international arena, represents the prudent course.
Elbridge Colby served with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and with the President’s Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Image: Flickr/Kate Ter Haar. CC BY 2.0.