Analysis: French are upset, but not surprised, by news of US spying

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 situatioQ Quoten 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 Q Quoteroutine 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:

4 Responses to Analysis: French are upset, but not surprised, by news of US spying

  1. Pete says:

    Yes if Obama discovered German, French or Israeli intelligence were reading his emails Obama would be equally nonchalant.

  2. Tom McCabe says:

    The French are shocked, SHOCKED to discover that they’re not the only ones to spy on their allies…

  3. Alec Quin says:

    This is a brief but signficant comment about your statement that “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.”

    A “Presidential Finding” refers to the document where the Preisdent finds a need for the US to conduct covert action to support a national security or foreign policy objective. Covert action covers activities to influence political, economic, and military outcomes without the US role being in the action being reveal or acknowledged by the US Government. It has nothing to do with the collection of intelligence. It is not a process for ordering up SIGINT collection, even against leadership communications. Our allies are upset enough by our intelligence collection; they would be a lot more critical if they thought the President had found a need to order up covert action against them.

  4. intelNews says:

    @Alec Quin: Thanks for your good comment. You’re absolutely correct on the definition of covert action -in fact I believe it’s taken almost word for word from EO 12333. I would argue, however, that often times the line that separates covert action from intel collection is exceedingly thin, particularly when it comes to “off-net” operations of a sensitive nature. There are countless examples in the open literature. I’ll refer you to MONOPOLY and SCOPE as just two of many cases involving “special collection.” This is to say that EO 12333 does indeed apply to particularly sensitive cases involving collection. Granted, none of these are SIGINT -they focus on interception prior to encipherment. But here is my point: in the post-Snowden/WikiLeaks era, leadership coms collection must inevitably come under 12333, if only to protect America’s reputation. The way I see it, there is not much more diplomatic blowback the US can take from all this stuff and still retain its international stature. I hope this makes my argument clearer. I appreciate your feedback. [IA]

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