The World of Espionage in 2015

This piece originally ran in the German newspaper BILD as Die Welt der Spionage im Jahr 2015. For the benefit of readers who don’t know German, I’m providing the English version — enjoy!

The latest Wikileaks sensation concerns allegations that the U.S. National Security Agency has been spying on Paris. Based on purloined intelligence documents, it appears that NSA has intercepted the communications of three French presidents – Chirac, Sarkozy, and Hollande.

President Obama has delivered his usual mea culpa, as he previously did with Chancellor Merkel, adding that the United States is no longer doing such things. That may, or may not, be true, but there’s little doubt that NSA will be back to intercepting high-level communications in Paris soon, no matter what Obama says right now.

France, although it’s an ally that’s back in NATO after decades of being barely in the Atlantic Alliance, is also a major world power that has nuclear weapons and often doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Washington – or London. Of course NSA and its Anglosphere partners like Britain’s GCHQ are trying to intercept the phone calls and emails of the French president and his top officials. They would be derelict of duty if they did not.

France’s difficult trade relations – not always noted for their transparency – alone would be enough to justify monitoring the Élysée Palace. When you add to that Parisian longstanding ties to questionable regimes and the venerable French tendency to go their own way in foreign affairs – while not always being honest with allies about their unstated policies – knowing what Paris is really up to is something any major power will want to know. In reality, there are dozens of intelligence services that want to know what’s happing in the Élysée Palace, and the BND is one of them.

The official French reaction to the NSA revelations has been moderate, in contrast to the German hysteria over Handygate. The American ambassador has been summoned, but that’s as far as this “scandal” will really go. Paris has no intention of making a “big deal” over this story.

Some of this has to do with French maturity about espionage. Everybody spies. Every developed country has a foreign intelligence service whose job is breaking the laws of foreign countries. France knows this.

Neither is this the first time in recent years that the Americans got caught spying on the Seine. Back in 1996, the CIA, though careless tradecraft, got embroiled in a messy scandal that involved deep-cover spies and mistresses – the perfect French recipe. Again, Paris didn’t make too big a fuss.

Why should they? The French are very adept at espionage themselves and they know how the game is played. The DGSE, the French foreign intelligence service, analogous to the BND, has a well-honed reputation for efficiency and daring. Year in and year out, the DGSE ranks among the Big Five counterintelligence threats to the United States, after Russia, China, Cuba, and Israel, roughly in that order.

And the French are good at spying too. During some of my stints in Eastern Europe, I was watched at least as closely by French “allies” as I was by “hostile” local security services. That’s just how the spy-game gets played.

Moreover, Paris doesn’t seek to make too public a fuss about NSA intercepting the calls of the French president, since the DGSE is doing the exact same thing. When Germany was aflutter with revelations of NSA spying on Chancellor Merkel, thanks to Edward Snowden, the French took it in stride, indeed with a Gallic shrug. Of course the Americans were doing this, they said to reporters – who didn’t know this?

“I had telephone tap transcripts in my hands of President George W. Bush that we carried out,” explained a former DGSE official, who seemed mystified by German outrage, which he found contrived. Was the fanfare “populism or crass ignorance?” he wondered, “because we obviously send our reports to [our] political authorities.”

More than a hundred intelligence services worldwide would like to get their hands on the communications of the American president – and it’s naïve to think that none of them ever do. Sometimes top espionage agencies, for instance the KGB, have recruited human spies inside the White House too.

In the twenty-first century, we all depend on electronic communications of every sort – Handys, iPads, instant messages – to live our daily lives. Leaders are no different. President Obama demanded that NSA find him a secure way to use his beloved Blackberry – which represents a huge vulnerability to espionage.

Any world leader in 2015 who does not think that his or her communications are being targeted intensely by multiple intelligence agencies is so foolish as to be unfit for office.

Smart leaders understand that they may be subject to monitoring at any time. The cunning ones know how to employ this to their advantage. I am aware of at least three world leaders in recent memory who, aware that somebody may be listening in, intentionally gave misleading information on an open telephone line. On at least one occasion, such a clever lie to fool the spies significantly skewed major international diplomacy – to the advantage of that leader’s country.

In a formal sense, this is termed denial and deception by American intelligence. But informally, any wise top official will think about doing the same. You can never be sure who’s getting your message, beyond its intended recipients, so if you’re a world leader, it’s safe to assume you’re not alone on the line with the person you’re talking to.

Again, the French understand all this and make accommodations. The French Foreign Ministry has invested heavily in hundreds of late-model cell phones with advanced encryption, to offer a degree of security. Nevertheless, explained a senior French diplomat, “You cannot say just anything on just any network!”

That, in 2015, is the simple truth. Top officials of any Western government should always assume they are being listened to when they pick up a phone or use email. Any other assumption is grossly naïve.

If they’re lucky, it will be a friendly service that’s listening in, but it may well be the Russians and Chinese, who are interested in a lot more than advantages in trade talks. Only the dead have seen the end of war, explained Plato well over two millennia ago, and the same is true of espionage. Spying is called the Second Oldest Profession with good reason.