June 25, 2015 4 Comments
Before Edward Snowden, the revelation that the United States National Security Agency spied on three successive French presidents would have shocked many. But in the post-Snowden era, the news came and went without much tumult. The French President, Francois Hollande, called two emergency meetings of senior government officials at the Élysée Palace; the American ambassador to France was summoned for an official protest; but nothing more came of it. It was reported that US President Barack Obama spoke directly with his French counterpart on Wednesday, and assured him in no uncertain terms “that the US is no longer spying on France”.
The French leader, who is one of three French presidents mentioned in the WikiLeaks documents as a target of the NSA, is genuinely upset. And there will be some in his government who will push for a harder response than simply summoning the American envoy in Paris to file an official protest. But nobody in Paris or Washington thinks that Mr. Hollande, or indeed any other senior French official, was shocked or even surprised by the revelations of American espionage against France. Nor will the revelation cause any drastic disruption in the intelligence cooperation between France and the US. The two countries depend on each other to address a number of international issues that affect both, such the worrying situation in Syria and Iraq, the continuing crises in Ukraine and in Libya, as well as the financial meltdown in Greece. So there is a recognition that their intelligence agencies must continue to work together on several pressing issues.
However, the French response may become a lot more direct if WikiLeaks publish further revelations about US espionage against French officials. The whistleblower website noted on Tuesday that “French readers can expect more timely and important revelations in the near future”. Unlike Edward Snowden, who is known to release progressively more damning documents in stages, WikiLeaks does not have a history of aiming for a crescendo through progressive releases of classified information. But there is speculation that Edward Snowden may in fact be the source of this latest WikiLeaks disclosure. If that is the case, we should not exclude further releases of relevant documents, and thus a more robust French response.
And what about America’s retort? Washington has suffered considerable diplomatic blowback from revelations in 2013 and 2014 that it spied on the leaders of Germany, Brazil and Argentina. Is the NSA still spying on America’s allied leaders? I am of the opinion that the NSA is not currently targeting the personal communications of allied government leaders as a matter of routine practice. However, I do believe that this regimen can easily be changed to address particular needs, through what is called a “presidential finding”, basically a direct order issued by the president of the United States to target an individual foreign leader.
In the past two years, we have witnessed the diplomatic fallout that can result from publicly revealing these practices. However, for an intelligence agency like the NSA, having access to the personal communications of a foreign head of state is a temptation that is simply too difficult to resist. Moreover, it should not be assumed that political leaders are always completely in the know about the practices of their country’s intelligence agencies. American intelligence history amply demonstrates this truism. Finally, I would point to the well known maxim that intelligence agencies do not typically distinguish between adversaries and allies. All targets are considered fair game. This will admittedly do little to appease the French, but it will at least give them an accurate impression of what to expect in the brave new world of wholesale communications interception.
* This editorial is based on an interview given by the author to the Spanish newspaper La Razón.
► Author: Ian Allen | Date: 25 June 2015 | Permalink: http://intelnews.org/2015/06/25/01-1722/