Rumors of U.S. Spying in Britain Spark Debate

There's an old saying in the intelligence business: "In God we trust. Everyone else, we monitor." On Thursday, Scotland Yard will release a report that, according to British press accounts, will allege that U.S. intelligence was bugging Princess Diana the night she died. Both the NSA and the CIA insist this is "rubbish." But the rumor raises new questions about the age-old practice of spying on friends.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

In London, tomorrow, Scotland Yard will release the findings of a three year investigation into the car crash the killed Princess Diana. According to British press reports, among those findings will be a bombshell, that U.S. intelligence was bugging the Princess's phone calls the night she died. Both the CIA and the National Security Agency denied the allegation. CIA spokeswoman Michelle Neff calls it, quote, “absolutely rubbish.”

But as NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports, the episode is raising new questions about the age old practice of spying on friends.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: There's an old saying in the intelligence business, in God we trust, everyone else we monitor.

Mr. PHILIP GIRALDI (Former CIA Operations Officer): The United States is basically spies on everyone around the world.

KELLY: That's Philip Giraldi, a former CIA operations officer. He notes there are exceptions under an agreement that grew out of the Second World War. The United States and Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have promised not to spy on each other, but everyone else, Giraldi says, is fair game.

Mr. GIRALDI: And generally what happens is that when a CIA officer is caught in Europe or an Israeli is caught in the United States, they're kind of quietly allowed to go home. PNG, as the expression is, persona non grata.

KELLY: But violations of this unwritten etiquette of espionage are rampant. The most famous case of friendly spying is probably that of Jonathan Pollard. Pollard, a U.S. Navy analyst, pleaded guilty in 1986 to selling classified documents to Israel. Since Pollard, Israeli officials have sworn up and down that Israel no longer spies on the United States. Some U.S. intelligence experts, such as former CIA director Jim Woolsey, say they take Israel at its word.

Mr. JIM WOOSLEY (Former CIA Director): We have so much that we need to do together and are doing together which respect to terrorism and rogue states such as Syria. So my judgment would be - and it's no more than that - no, that the U.S. and Israel are cooperating and sharing information, not conducting any kind of intelligence operations against one another.

KELLY: Indeed, Woosley, who ran the CIA in the mid-‘90s, argues that spying on allies is quite rare. He concedes the U.S. does participate in economic espionage but it doesn't try to recruit spies inside friendly governments. Woosley says such restraint applies even when diplomatic relations are tense such as back in 2003 when the U.S. position on Iraq where sharply at odds with the view in Paris and Berlin. But Woosley says, it's not like Washington had trouble figuring out what those governments were thinking.

Mr. WOOSLEY: There was no secret to what the Schroeder government or any of the governments that oppose to very substantially on Iraq thought. Nobody was hiding anything. Espionage is about stealing secrets, and we don't just do that with allies.

KELLY: But Jeffrey Richelson points out there's spying and then there's spying. Richelson, who has written extensively on intelligence issues, says the U.S. does have ways of keeping tabs on friends.

Dr. JEFFREY RICHELSON (National Security Archive Staff): I don't think we would try to necessarily recruit a source in the Italian government or the German government. But that doesn't mean that we wouldn't monitor or say government communications of the Germans or the Italians.

KELLY: Richelson, in other words, agrees that the U.S. probably wasn't bugging the office of the German ambassador back in 2003. But listening to his phone calls, reading his e-mails back to Berlin? Sure, Richelson says adding, I would expect that's still happens on a regular basis.

Back then to the matter at hand, whether the U.S. was spying on Princess Diana, six intelligence veterans consulted for the story all expressed skepticism. They note the longstanding prohibition on spying on Britain and the generally excellent relations between CIA and its British counterpart, MI6.

But Lock Johnson, an intelligence expert at the University of Georgia, points out that even among the closest of allies, there are limits. You always hold a little bit back, Johnson says, remember Kim Philby?

Mr. LOCK JOHNSON (University of Georgia): I remember when he used to come over to Washington, D.C. He would frequently get together with Jim Angleton, who was chief of CIA Counter Intelligence. And they go out to Georgetown and have wonderful dinners and wine together. And Angleton never realized that here was a fellow sitting across from him who wasn't simply a top official in British intelligence, but also a spy for the Soviet Union.

KELLY: And there's the rub. It's always possible your ally has been penetrated by an enemy who's busy spying on you when you think you're dining among friends.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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