The World

The First Rule of Spying on Your Allies Is You Don’t Get Caught Spying on Your Allies

The United Nations building in New York City is apparently a target of NSA spying.

Photo by Monika Graff/Getty Images

Former Secretary of State Henry Stimson’s probably apocryphal statement upon eliminating the U.S. Cipher Bureau in 1929 that “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail” clearly wasn’t all that true then and certainly isn’t true now. Governments, even friendly ones, do read each other’s’ mail and are aware that this reading is happening. But when they get caught at it, things still get uncomfortable.

Journalist and Edward Snowden-leak-recipient Laura Poitras has a new article in the German news magazine Der Spiegel today detailing NSA surveillance activities aimed at EU and U.N. offices. The article claims, based on documents provided by Snowden, that the NSA acquired the floor plans to the EU’s new building in New York, bugged its embassies in Washington and New York, and tapped into its internal cable network. This builds on reports from earlier on the summer that the agency had targeted EU headquarters in Brussels. When incoming U.S. ambassador to the EU C. Boyden Gray was briefed on the agency’s capabilities in 2005, he reportedly told them, “I had no idea I would receive such detailed information. … You people at the NSA are becoming my new best friends.”

The new article also claims that NSA technicians have tapped into the U.N.’s internal video teleconferencing system. This adds to information about U.S. intelligence priorities at Turtle Bay that was first revealed in the Wikileak-ed U.S. Embassy cables in 2010. (Amusingly, NSA staff seem to discuss spying on U.N. diplomats using the cutely informal e-mail tone that most offices use to coordinate birthday happy hours: “This traffic is getting us internal UN VTCs (yay!).”)

The story won’t do much to bolster President Obama’s claim that “the people at the NSA don’t have an interest in doing anything other than making sure that where we can prevent a terrorist attack,” but I suspect that the report, even if fully substantiated, won’t be much of a blockbuster on the United States.

The revelations in the Snowden cables about spying on foreign governments haven’t garnered as much attention from the U.S. public as the programs used to spy on U.S. citizens, largely, I suspect, because many Americans assume intelligence agencies spy on other governments—even friendly ones—and don’t really have a problem with it. But in Europe, these programs have been much more controversial. 

The debate has been particularly heated in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel is currently running for re-election and opposition parties have threatened to hold up planned U.S.-EU trade talks until Washington comes clean. Germany has canceled a Cold War-era spying pact with the United States and Britain over the revelations.

One of Merkel’s senior ministers told Parliament earlier this month that the U.S. had offered to negotiate a “no-spy” agreement with the country. Putting aside the fact that the German government has itself apparently been taking advantage of the NSA’s data collection, the idea of a no-spy agreement is a little hard to wrap one’s head around as it seems to imply that spying between allies is tacitly permitted, or at least expected, if no such agreement is in place.

The closest thing to a working agreement of this type may be the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance among the Anglophone powers of the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, but that has taken decades of cooperation to establish and some suspect that even these governments eavesdrop on each other from time to time.

Efforts to put such arrangements in writing haven’t fared so well. The New York Times reported in 2010 that former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair had pushed for such an agreement with France, but the idea was scuttled over fears that it would “handcuff the United States if a new government came to power in France that was more hostile to American foreign policy goals.” As the Times noted, “the United States and France have a long history of spying on each other.” So do the United States and its closest Middle Eastern ally.

In response to the Spiegel story today, a U.N. spokesman would refer only to legal norms, saying “the inviolability of diplomatic missions, including the United Nations and other international organizations, whose functions are protected by the relevant international conventions like the Vienna Convention, has been well-established international law. … Therefore, member-states are expected to act accordingly to protect the inviolability of diplomatic missions.” However, it’s becoming clear that the U.S. isn’t the only country playing this game. The NSA’s spies at the U.N. detected a similar program by Chinese intelligence agencies in 2011. As Der Spiegel puts it, “even in UN circles a little bit of spying has always been viewed as a minor offense.”

A written agreement banning spying would seem to be of little value. As one incredulous U.S. intelligence official asked the Times“How would you verify it—by spying?” These kinds of activities have clearly long been one of the lesser-discussed aspects of diplomacy and will continue to be after the dust settles from the NSA scandal. But that doesn’t really make it look any better when you get caught at it.