It's Not Easy to Stop Spying on Allies

The U.S. must reassure Europeans without compromising its interests
Illustration by Bloomberg View

Outrage over U.S. wiretapping of Angela Merkel’s cell phone has inspired two proposals worth considering. One is that the U.S. should quit spying on allied leaders. The second, floated by the German chancellor herself, is to add her country to the no-mutual-spying, intelligence-sharing pact that the U.S. has had with its closest Anglophone allies since 1946.

Both of these ideas have the virtue of going beyond the inadequate response, “Everybody spies.” However, neither would be as easy to carry out as they might sound.

Consider, first, the proposal by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that the U.S. simply stop spying on friends. This, she suggests, could be accomplished as part of a full review of U.S. intelligence gathering. Such a review would be welcome to assure the American public, as well as U.S. allies, that reasonable rules govern the National Security Agency.

Trouble is, new rules can limit the NSA only so much. The need for secrecy makes it unrealistic for the U.S. to pledge not to listen in on allied leaders altogether. Other nations could not be expected to follow suit, and at some point the U.S. would find itself overwhelmingly tempted to break the vow. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that any U.S. administration would have passed up the chance to listen in on phone conversations in 2003 between then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Russian President Vladimir Putin as they sought ways to thwart the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Merkel’s suggestion that Germany be part of a no-spying alliance with the U.S. is also complicated. The multiple pacts that make up the so-called Five Eyes agreement among the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Canada, and New Zealand are rooted in the World War II collaboration between U.S. and British code breakers. In 1946 the U.S. and U.K. agreed to continue their alliance against the Russians.

So why not create Six Eyes, adding Germany to the group? The complication is that Germany’s foreign policy priorities don’t align as closely with the U.S.’s as do those of the U.K. Germany is less willing to confront Russia and China, for one thing, because they are mainstays of the export machine powering half the German economy. Until recently, Germany also took a notably softer line than the U.S. on Iran. Germany’s foreign ministry might ultimately balk at the pressures to align with the U.S. that an intelligence deal would create. And while intelligence allies don’t always have to agree on policy—the U.S. and U.K. split over both the Suez Crisis and the Vietnam War—when they do fall out, intelligence cooperation can be threatened, unless there is a strong foundation to back it.

If an immediate expansion of the Five Eyes club is too ambitious, the U.S. might still work to integrate Germany more closely into its intelligence network. It would garner trust, which is in short supply. And as the threats facing the U.S. become more complex, it will need more close friends.


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