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Why spy on allies? Even good friends keep secrets

Friday - 11/1/2013, 3:36am  ET

FILE - In this Friday, May 15, 1998 file photo, Jonathan Pollard speaks during an interview in a conference room at the Federal Correction Institution in Butner, N.C. In geopolitics just as on the local playground, even best friends don't tell each other everything. And everybody's dying to know what the other guy knows. Revelations that the U.S. was monitoring the cellphone calls of up to 35 world leaders, including close allies, have brought into high relief the open-yet-often-unspoken secret _ and suggested the incredible reach of new-millennium technology. (AP Photo/Karl DeBlaker, File)

NANCY BENAC
Associated Press

In geopolitics, just as on the playground, even best friends don't tell each other everything. And everybody's dying to know what the other guy knows.

Revelations that the U.S. has been monitoring the cellphone calls of up to 35 world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have brought into high relief the open-yet-often-unspoken secret that even close allies keep things from one another -- and work every angle to find out what's being held back.

So it is that the Israelis recruited American naval analyst Jonathan Pollard to pass along U.S. secrets including satellite photos and data on Soviet weaponry in the 1980s. And the British were accused of spying on U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in the lead-up to the Iraq War. And the French, Germans, Japanese, Israelis and South Koreans have been accused of engaging in economic espionage against the United States.

But now the technology revealed by former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden has underscored the incredible new-millennium reach of the U.S. spy agency. And it is raising the question for some allies: Is this still OK?

National Intelligence Director James Clapper, for his part, testified this week that it is a "basic tenet" of the intelligence business to find out whether the public statements of world leaders jibe with what's being said behind closed doors.

What might the Americans have wanted to know from Merkel's private conversations, for example? Ripe topics could well include her thinking on European economic strategy and Germany's plans for talks with world powers about Iran's nuclear program.

There is both motive and opportunity driving the trust-but-verify dynamic in friend-on-friend espionage: Allies often have diverging interests, and the explosion of digital and wireless communication keeps creating new avenues for spying on one another. Further, shifting alliances mean that today's good friends may be on the outs sometime soon.

"It was not all that many years ago when we were bombing German citizens and dropping the atomic bomb on the Japanese," says Peter Earnest, a 35-year veteran of the CIA and now executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington.

News that the U.S. has tapped foreign leaders' phones was an eye-opener to many -- the White House claims that even President Barack Obama wasn't aware of the extent of the surveillance -- and has prompted loud complaints from German, French and Spanish officials, among others.

It's all possible because "an explosion in different kinds of digital information tools makes it possible for intelligence agencies to vacuum up a vast quantity of data," says Charles Kupchan, a former Clinton administration official and now a senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations. "When you add together the Internet, wireless communications, cellphones, satellites, drones and human intelligence, you have many, many sources of acquiring intelligence."

"The magnitude of the eavesdropping is what shocked us," former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in a radio interview. "Let's be honest, we eavesdrop, too. Everyone is listening to everyone else. But we don't have the same means as the United States, which makes us jealous."

Protests aside, diplomats the world around know the gist of the game.

"I am persuaded that everyone knew everything or suspected everything," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said of the reports of U.S. monitoring.

And while prime ministers and lawmakers across Europe and Asia say they are outraged, Clapper told Congress that other countries' own spy agencies helped the NSA collect data on millions of phone calls as part of cooperative counterterror agreements.

Robert Eatinger, the CIA's senior deputy general counsel, told an American Bar Association conference on Thursday that European spy services have stayed quiet throughout the recent controversy because they also spy on the U.S.

"The services have an understanding," Eatinger said. "That's why there wasn't the hue and cry from them."

And another intelligence counsel says the White House can reasonably deny it knows everything about the U.S. spying that's going on.

"We don't reveal to the president or the intelligence committees all of the human sources we are recruiting. ... They understand what the programs are, and the president and chairs of the intelligence committees both knew we were seeking information about leadership intentions," said Robert Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. "They both saw reporting indicating what we were getting if not indicating the source."

Still, Claude Moraes, a British Labor Party politician and member of the European Union delegation that traveled to Washington this week for talks about U.S. surveillance, was troubled by the broad net being cast by U.S. intelligence.

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