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Everybody Spies - and for Good Reason

William J. Tucker serves as a senior security representative to a major government contractor where he acts as the Counterintelligence Officer, advises on counterterrorism issues, and prepares personnel for overseas travel. His additional duties include advising his superiors in matters concerning emergency management and business continuity planning. Mr. Tucker regularly writes on terrorism, intelligence (geopolitical/strategic), violent religious movements, and psychological profiling. Prior to his current position, Mr. Tucker served in the U.S. Army where he frequently briefed superior military officers in global terrorist movements and the modernization of foreign militaries. Additionally, he advised Department of Defense Police on domestic and international terrorist movements and trends in guerrilla attacks. Mr. Tucker received his B.A. and M.A. in Homeland Security (both with Honors from American Military University – AMU). You can follow William on Twitter @tuckerwj.

Everybody spies. Intelligence professionals acknowledge this fact easily enough and the public at large, too, may understand this to some extent, though the intricacies of how and what intelligence actually is may remain a mystery to them. In fact, most Americans are at least familiar with the existence of the CIA and FBI due to media exposure and Hollywood dramatization, but these are only two agencies out of 16 in the U.S. intelligence community. One would think that a spy agency exposed for spying would be rather pedestrian news, though judging by recent coverage that is not always the case. All too often outrage ensues over these activities even when details are scant and the source is questionable. In other words, this outrage stems not from what actually happened, or even that a leak occurred, but more often how the story concerning this information is framed. Context matters a great deal with understanding how intelligence works and the recent revelations about the National Security Agency are no exception. The European press has been running stories over the last week claiming that the NSA intercepted over 70 million phone calls made by French citizens and another 60 million calls made in Spain. As expected, the citizens of France and Spain were quite upset that the U.S. was spying on them, and rightfully so. After all, the U.S., Spain, and France are allies, and allies don’t spy on one another, right? This information caused quite a stir in Paris and Madrid resulting in the summoning of the respective U.S. Ambassadors to explain what Washington was doing. A few days later the source of this information was finally parsed by people who understood the program – not only did the NSA not collect these phone calls, these intercepted calls didn’t even take place within French or Spanish borders. Furthermore, the calls were intercepted by the French and Spanish themselves and then turned over to the NSA as part of an intelligence cooperation agreement. In essence, what the press reported and what actually happened were worlds apart.

Another interesting case study that makes this point was the intercepting of phone calls between president Clinton and Monica Lewinsky by a allied nation. Because these calls were conducted on an unsecure phone line it was a relatively easy task to accomplish. One would assume that U.S. allies would be uninterested in the private affairs of the president, but Lewinsky was an intern and Mr. Clinton may have discussed professional matters in addition to personal affairs. It was a golden target of opportunity to get into the president’s thought process when he was most vulnerable. In other words, he may have been more candid on certain topics then he would’ve been with another head of state or a member of his staff. The same could be said for the NSA’s monitoring of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s private cell phone. Consider that since Vladimir Putin began re-consolidating power back to the Kremlin, the U.S. became increasingly worried that Russia would use its energy stranglehold on Europe to strong arm U.S. allies into compliance with Moscow’s interests. This was first witnessed when the so-called color revolutions in the former Soviet states began to undergo a reversal and fall back into Moscow’s orbit. Russia would go on to put an exclamation point on their drive to reemerge as a world power by invading the Republic of Georgia, thus demonstrating its resolve to reestablish its sphere of influence. Though Washington likely understood that Germany may not have been vulnerable to a radical shift in orientation, Berlin has an energy hungry export driven economy and that reality would play a strong role in German-Russian relations. There was a very real fear that Germany would become friendlier with Moscow and less inclined to align with the U.S. as a result. When Merkel claimed that Germany was, “again acting like a normal country,” she was essentially stating that Germany would lay out and follow its national interests. It was vital to the U.S. to understand precisely what those interests might be. Again, context matters.

Naturally, Europe is not the only area of concern to the U.S. In South America the Brazilian profile has been rising both regionally and internationally, thus is makes sense that the NSA would be interested in the phone calls of Brazilian President Luiz da Silva and his successor Dilma Rousseff. When da Silva and Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Iran in 2010 to hammer out a deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program, per a U.S. request, it set in motion a high profile interaction between three important nations that were having a measurable impact in their respective regions. Inevitably, the interaction between these three nations at such a high-level would also lead to other agreements and promises of cooperation – a common outcome of these types of gatherings. For the U.S., a nation with far flung and complex interests, knowing the details of these agreements would be vital to complimenting and understanding public discussions by these leaders. Misinterpretations can be dangerous and good intelligence can often add color to a nation’s intentions which, in turn, can prevent a breakdown in relations, or worse, conflict. Though we may be uncomfortable with government spying the benefits often far outweigh the risks. This isn’t to defend everything the U.S. intelligence community does as some illicit activity may have occurred, but criticism should be focused on actual malfeasance, and not on the flawed analysis of a naive journalist. The ensuing Congressional hearing on intelligence will likely help to settle many of these issues, and U.S. citizens can take solace in the fact that these agencies are required to testify before elected officials – a quality one wouldn’t likely find in an agency that was out of control.

John W. Little

John W. Little

John W. Little is the creator of Blogs of War and the host of the Covert Contact national security podcast.

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