WASHINGTON – Europeans may express outrage over revelations of US spying but they know perfectly well how the espionage “game” is played — everybody spies on everybody, former intelligence officials say.
President Barack Obama seemed to suggest as much even as he tried to defuse the uproar over the National Security Agency’s alleged eavesdropping on the European Union mission in Washington as well as embassies of other allies.
“I guarantee you that in European capitals, there are people who are interested in, if not what I had for breakfast, at least what my talking points might be should I end up meeting with their leaders,” Obama said during a visit to Tanzania Monday.
“That’s how intelligence services operate.”
The former head of the NSA, Michael Hayden, dismissed the outcry across the Atlantic, suggesting America was not alone in snooping on its friends.
“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,” Hayden told CBS television on Sunday.
The complaints over the spying are reminiscent of the French policeman in the classic film “Casablanca,” who pretends to be “shocked” to find gambling going on at Rick’s bar, said another ex-intelligence official.
“The French spy on us, the French spy on England. The Israelis, the Russians, the UK, the US, the Chinese, all large countries with serious intelligence services are always spying on the governments of other countries,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP.
But one European source, who asked not to be named, said anger among Western allies was understandable given the “mass” scale of the US electronic surveillance, revealed in recent weeks by intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor.
“Hypocrisy is part of the game”
For James Lewis, a former senior US official and an expert on cyber security, some of the criticisms “ring a little hollow” because “the big European countries do things that are very similar to this.”
Saying one thing publicly about spying and approving something else in secret is a longstanding tradition, as “hypocrisy is part of the game,” said John Scheuer, a former CIA officer now at Georgetown University.
Scheuer was involved in a program running secret prisons for terror suspects after the September 11 attacks, and he said the CIA regularly shared information with “European partners” that was gathered from harsh interrogations of detainees.
“But whenever it became public, they were shocked and appalled and they condemned us for doing it,” Scheuer told AFP. “And that’s the way the game works.”
The former CIA officer said Washington could always turn the tables on its partners if it needed to.
“We always have in our pocket in the United States the knowledge of who is spying against us and it’s always possible that if someone in Europe or Europe pushes us too far, the president will say ‘OK, here’s the evidence that X country in Europe is collecting against America,” he said.
In the world of espionage, spying among allies is quietly accepted but there are some methods that would never be considered, like trying to shape an election in Europe, former intelligence officials said.
The only genuine red lines on spying on friends apply to the major English-speaking countries, the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, which operate under the “five eyes” agreement on intelligence gathering. ‘
The spying partners ran into a hail of criticism in the 1990s when their “Echelon” electronic surveillance program was exposed.
Among US allies, France and Israel are suspected in particularly of engaging in sophisticated cyber espionage for economic gain.
A National Intelligence Estimate from all 16 US spy agencies recently concluded that China ranked first in economic espionage against American companies, with France, Israel and Russia in second place.
“I would look at that if I was either an American, a Belgian or a Brit, my government would be kind of negligent if they were not collecting intelligence that would assist our economy,” Scheuer said.
As for US spying on the EU mission, it was unnecessary as any information on trade talks or other issues could be obtained through ordinary means, said Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Why dont you just call them and talk to them?”