All's Fair In Friendship And Spying But U.S. Upped The Ante

In light of new NSA spying revelations — this time, on European leaders — Audie Cornish talks to Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, about why allies spy on each other.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Just how common is it for friends to spy on friends? For some answers we turn now to Charles Kupchan, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Hello there.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: Hi there.

CORNISH: So the big question first, does this thing happen all the time?

KUPCHAN: Well, most people know about espionage from spy novels and thriller movies and in those, one enemy is spying on another, but there is a lot of mundane, day to day intelligence that comes in. Everybody spies on everybody, including friends on friends.

CORNISH: So looking at the latest revelations of monitoring of leaders in Germany, Brazil and Mexico, is this a case where the U.S. has taken things to a new level?

KUPCHAN: Well, I think the outrage that we see in Europe and in Latin America is partly about the surprise that friends are spying on friends, but it's also the scope and the scale. And I think it's also about these revelations trickling out. If there had been one big bang and all this information came out at once, it would've died out by now. But it comes out week by week, day by day, and in some ways, it's that trail that is taking a toll on the Obama administration.

CORNISH: Can you give us some quick history here? Are there other high profile examples of periods in history where you had friends spying on friends and it getting out?

KUPCHAN: It's common knowledge that this goes on and there have been episodes in which revelations have leaked, nothing on this scale, nothing that has been quite so embarrassing. But the British have been vacuuming up Internet information. That's now in the public domain and in many respects, leaders, even though they know this goes on because they come into the office in the morning, they read intelligence about what their friends are doing, they are being forced to protest and forced to show indignation because their publics are so upset.

And Merkel originally I think backpedaled and played this down. Now, I think because of public outrage, she is taking a much more forceful stand.

CORNISH: So Charles Kupchan, it's one thing for there to be spying, obviously, between enemies, but what are some of the foreign policy reasons, arguments why allies spy on each other?

KUPCHAN: Well, there are two main kinds of products that intelligence agencies are looking for when they focus on friends. One is general information. What's going on in the target country? How is the governing coalition faring? Who's up and who's down? And then, the other would be more targeted information to give the United States a leg up on a particular diplomatic issue.

What is the German government thinking about the free trade negotiation with the United States? What is the German government thinking about sanctions against Iran? These are not questions of direct national security consequence to the United States, but I think intelligence agencies see that kind of information as providing guidance to the diplomats.

CORNISH: In this day and age, when people are more suspicious of their phones being tapped, how valuable is this kind of intelligence? I ask because, you know, there was a tweet from the British ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher, where he said I work on assumption that six-plus countries tap my phone and he said it's increasingly rare that diplomats say anything sensitive on calls.

KUPCHAN: You know, the most important intelligence is very important and we know that on occasion the vacuuming of information has lead to the capture of terrorists or the prevention of terrorist attacks and so there certainly is a justification for at least a good bit of what is going on. If there were to be a moratorium on spying against friends, how much damage would be done? Very little.

And that's because in the end of the day, friends do not mean harm to friends. The United States would have a somewhat less information in its diplomatic quiver, but we could certainly live if there were to be an agreement with our friends to cut this out.

CORNISH: Charles Kupchan, he is a professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

KUPCHAN: My pleasure.

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