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Friend or Foe? The US’ Complicated Intelligence-Sharing Relationship with Europe

August 29, 2013
Protestors in Germany oppose NSA spying. The affair is complicated by the fact that many Europeans already share a great deal of intelligence with the US, and the US takes European concerns into account when processing FOIA requests. (JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

Protestors in Germany oppose NSA spying. The affair is complicated by the fact that many Europeans already share a great deal of intelligence with the US, and the US takes European concerns into account when processing FOIA requests. (JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

President Obama says it does “not imply a lack of trust” to do it, John Kerry hints that everybody does it, and Europe demands answers for it. Spying on our allies is big news these days, even the recently leaked intelligence community budget summary reports that we spy on our friends. However, revelations about the extent of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) global drag-net surveillance practices are complicated by the US’s simultaneous protection of foreign interests at the expense of the public’s right to know. Recent revelations beg the question of whose interests the surveillance and secrecy is serving, and provide a good opportunity for the Obama Administration to explain both the expensive and expansive surveillance state and the broken classification system all at once.

But despite the outcry, certain levels of surveillance practices are tacitly understood in both the US and across the Atlantic. Recent declassifications regarding the secret history of the U-2 surveillance prgoram prove that the US spied on France in the 1960s, and US economic espionage against both France and Germany as recently as the 1990s has been well documented. Moreover, the NSA and CIA operate jointly out of more than a quarter of all US diplomatic embassies around the world. So while spying on our European allies is not new, the realization of the scale of the NSA surveillance may have proved to be a rude awakening.

Der Spiegel’s reports have particularly upset the Germans, whose denizens lived under the totalitarian Stasi surveillance state throughout the Cold War. In addition to the nation’s collective fear, understanding, and hatred of living under constant surveillance, Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, the BND, already provides a massive amount of information to the NSA. To repair any potential fallout before German Chancellor Angela Merkell runs for re-election, the US is offering to sign a ‘no spy’ pact with the country. France and the US tried and failed to reach a similar agreement several years ago, leading one to believe that since the agreement not to spy on one another was unsuccessful, that continued spying on each other was understood. The US already has a ‘no spy’ pact in place with the UK, thanks to the two countries participation in the Five Eyes group – a surveillance consortium of five English-speaking countries, though they occasionally “snoop” on one another when disagreements arise.

While the level, if not the practice, of spying of our European collaborators has surprised many, it becomes more intriguing when considering that US intelligence agencies regularly consult with those same allies when making classification decisions, and routinely invoke foreign government interests to deny Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The recent CIA declassification affirming the agency’s involvement in the 1953 coup overthrowing Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh is a prime example of this practice. It’s long been public knowledge that the CIA was involved in Mossadegh’s ouster, but the agency only recently confirmed its role in the 60-year-old event, raising well-founded speculation that this admission was delayed to protect Britain’s MI6, which was also involved in the coup. According to the Archive’s Deputy Director Malcolm Byrne, “[w]hen it comes to foreign government information (known as FGI) U.S. agencies deny access for sometimes decades after the events they cover – six decades in the Iran case, and counting. Consulting with allies before declassifying documents is a long-standing practice, though what exactly that entails is not well understood.” This practice not only effects declassification decisions, but also delays the publication of the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series, the US government’s official diplomatic history.

Surveillance practices and the classification system both have legitimate and important functions that can serve to protect American interests and allies. They are also mutually reinforcing systems, which is why there are exemptions built into the Freedom of Information Act to prevent the disclosure of intelligence sources or methods. However recent headlines, combined with delays in important FOIA disclosures in part to protect these allies’ interests at the public’s expense, is a troubling confluence. The Obama Administration is being given an ideal opportunity to substantively address what’s wrong with our national security system. Hopefully in the near future we will receive less assurances that our surveillance apparatus is under control, and more attempts to genuinely address the surveillance and secrecy issues that have been raised.

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