European officials are even more shocked and outraged today than they were yesterday at the revelations in Der Spiegel that the US government has been spying on the EU’s offices in Washington and New York. “These are disturbing news if proven true. They demand full clarification,” the EU said in a terse statement today. French president François Hollande said that the revelations might threaten a big round of trade talks scheduled for next week in Washington. “We aren’t in the Cold War anymore,” said Steffen Seibert, chief spokesman for German chancellor Angela Merkel, at a news conference in Berlin.
But while America’s European allies may be shocked, they can’t be surprised. Anyone familiar with the spy-versus-spy games in global diplomatic hubs knows that everyone has been spying on each other for decades.
Some offices at the UN are probably being bugged by more than a dozen foreign governments, according to a former head of FBI counter-intelligence. He says governments are spying on each other so much in Washington and at the UN that it’s surprising their spooks and technicians don’t bump into each other more. At any given time, the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division is investigating dozens of potential breaches of security.
Two US officials familiar with American electronic espionage programs told Bloomberg that “multinational institutions are routine targets for both technological and human intelligence by virtually all nations that are members of them.” And the State Department cables leaked by Wikileaks show that US diplomats have essentially been required to spy on their counterparts for years.
Der Spiegel, attributing the disclosures to classified documents leaked by former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, also said the NSA had collected massive amounts of other data through a systematic effort to infiltrate the computer networks of all of the countries in the 28-nation bloc. (Croatia joined today.)
The only public comment from the US today from Secretary of State John Kerry, on a diplomatic trip in Brunei, who told reporters that such activities are “not unusual for a lot of nations.”
The former head of the CIA and NSA, Gen. Michael V. Hayden warned European allies that picking a fight over this is likely to expose what they’ve been doing too. “Number one, the United States does conduct espionage,” Hayden said, appearing on the CBS show “Face The Nation” yesterday. “Number two, our fourth amendment, which protects Americans’ privacy, is not an international treaty. And, number three, any European who wants to go out and rend their garments with regard to international espionage should look first and find out what their own governments are doing.”
If anything, Washington spies on its friends more than its enemies because it has more access, and needs to know whether it can trust them on key strategic deliberations, according to Peter Probst, a former senior CIA and defense department official.
“Hayden is absolutely right and anything who thinks otherwise is hopelessly naïve. Countries have been spying on each other since time immemorial. And it will continue,” said Probst. “Countries are much interested in knowing and understanding the inner deliberations of allies as well as adversaries because its helps us strategically, in understanding where friends may be going in the future, and what courses of actions they’re taking.”