Strife Feature – Spying on Friends

By Anastasia Beck

In the aftermath of the allegations of the US National Security Agency (NSA) spying on allied states such as Germany, and accusations from the White House concerning alleged spying by Britain’s GCHQ on Donald Trump during his presidential campaign, moral questions have arisen regarding spying on one’s allies. The gravity of these incidents was further underlined by the moral outrage around such aspects by politicians in these countries. However, are such reactions disproportionate and should countries expect this sort of behaviour due to the tumultuous nature of the international stage?

This article will discern whether it is possible to legitimise the action of spying on one’s allies by first looking at the debate through a theoretical lens, using the Just Intelligence Theory. In the corresponding sections, I investigate the nature of ‘alliances’ and follow it up with an assessment of previous examples of friendly spying that underscores how spying on one’s allies is imperative in the current international system.

As part of the Snowden leaks, a presentation slide was released depicting NSA signals intelligence operations around the world which collect data from many countries, even allies.

The Just Intelligence Theory

From a theoretical perspective, states should not spy on each other.  This view stems from the application of the Just Intelligence Theory to friendly espionage.  ‘By using the Just War tradition as a base it is possible to establish a set of just intelligence principles that can limit the harm intelligence collection causes while outlining what circumstances would be required to justify the harm caused.’[1]  The just intelligence principles include: having a just cause, a legitimate authority to sanction the activity, be conducted for the intended purpose, be proportionate, be used as a last resort, and discriminate between legitimate and illegitimate targets.[2]

The first principle, having a just cause to conduct intelligence, would require there to be a substantial threat to justify any harm caused through the collection of intelligence. As it is the security services’ duty to preserve and maintain national interests, a high-level threat would provide sufficient cause to conduct intelligence activities. For example, during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Britain’s secret intelligence service MI6 and USA’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) utilised a Soviet spy – Oleg Penkovsky – to relay vital information back to the West regarding Soviet intentions and capabilities. The near possibility of total war occurring between the two super powers justified the use of spying against the Soviet Union. However, when one examines intelligence collection on friendly states, it is hard to justify a similar action. Spying on your allies entails that there is no immediate threat, and is instead being conducted because of a general understanding of the targeted state’s nature and not because of an overt provocation.  However, the just intelligence theory, much like the just war theory, ‘is blind to general information about states and information that does not amount to identifying a concrete threat’ can therefore not be used as a justification for intelligence collection against them.[3]  To be clear, general information would surmount to a state’s religion and political position, so for example, if one were at odds with an allied state’s political system that alone does not justify spying on it.  Thus, from a theoretical perspective, spying on one’s allies does not have a just cause, thereby making the whole activity unjust.

Another principle requires sticking to the stated purposes, and not diverge for political, economic or social objectives.  And yet, spying on your allies often does not meet this condition. Once again, a government’s role is to safeguard the interests of the nation, and this would require knowledge around fiscal, foreign or defence policies of allied states. For example, one could argue that, due to rising tensions within the European Union on spending towards Greece, it would seem appropriate for Germany to keep abreast of any changes in Greek fiscal policy – which the Greeks may not wish to openly disclose.[4]

However, this theory is not a legal doctrine and few states would give up vital information on fellow states to follow such stringent rules.  Furthermore, the international system is extremely competitive and anarchic, with state’s wishing to pursue strategies in consonance with their national interests.

What needs to be therefore examined is what it means to be an ally in the international system and whether the true nature of alliances justifies the use of spying on one another.  Alliances and friendly relationships are merely ‘mutual-defence pacts’ between states that often share and adhere to particular norms and practices.[5]  But states are in competition with one another, with allies pursuing their own national interests above that of others.[6]  As a result, trust among states in the international system is fragile due to the uncertainty surrounding the possibility of opposing views of leaders of governments which may affect their positions abroad.[7] It is this uncertainty surrounding intentions, and the possibility of its translation into policy, that may motivate a state to conduct surveillance on the inner debates and workings of partner countries.  It would be foolish to blindly trust their partners. As history has illustrated, allies often diverge and defect from previously agreed upon policies.

Examining transatlantic alliances

“A friend today can become an enemy tomorrow” is a phrase which can be applied quite successfully towards past and present-day alliances. Due to the competitive nature of the international system at large, allies’ interests may diverge, therefore an understanding of such change is required.  A good example of this would be the alliance between Germany and the US.  Many would agree that these two states – both NATO members – have a warm relationship.  Spying on the Germans has had positive outcomes. In the 1970s, at the time of the Cold War, West Germany, a US ally, had discovered that the East Germans had planted a communist spy in West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s inner circle.[8]  When the infiltration was revealed, the damage was NATO-wide, with Brandt having to resign after it was found that his letters to President Nixon had been compromised.[9] However, in modern times, Germany has diverged and disagreed with certain US policies, thus undermining US interests.  In 2011, Obama expressed his desire to intervene militarily in Libya but faced opposition from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.  Had the US intervened in Libya, Merkel could have used her influence to reduce NATO’s participation in the conflict.[10]  Additionally, ‘Washington and Berlin have clashed over how to manage the eurozone crisis, the resolution of which have far-reaching implications for the German and US economies’.[11]   The NSA wiretapping Merkel’s mobile phone may seem personal and invasive, but with the power that Germany has today and its ability to undermine its allies’ interests, it would seem logical to maintain a close eye on any developments within.

Close allies for many years, Germany and the US are arguably facing a particularly frosty relationship after allegations of NSA wiretapping of the Chancellor’s personal mobile.

Another close ally of the US who has expressed outrage of being targeted by NSA spying is France, but once again this European ally has also had a tendency to diverge from US policies. Under Charles de Gaulle, France continually turned its back on the US. De Gaulle announced a ‘national independence policy’ that contained a nuclear plan pertaining to ‘a strategy of defence in all directions’ – which also seemed to suggest that the US may one day become an enemy of France.[12]  Also, the French vetoed Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community – that would later advance to become the European Union – thereby weakening its trans-Atlantic ties. ‘De Gaulle even tried to persuade the leader of Western Germany to loosen his ties with NATO, which would have undermined the US-led coalition and damaged the course of the Cold War.’[13]  Thus, as a result of such history of divergence, it would appear logical for the US to spy on its French ally due to France’s history of divergence.

The US and Britain have long been considered the closest of allies, but even these two friends have been known to spy and conduct espionage against each other.  In 1917, the British government wanted the US to join the fight during the First World War, and on Britain’s side.  ‘The British used a whole range of overt and clandestine methods to gather intelligence and run influence operations’ including one example of ‘the surveillance of a US transatlantic cable’ in which Britain’s foreign intelligence service learned of a dubious German plot to win Mexico’s allegiance by promising the country a chunk of US territory.[14]  Masking the source of the information, British foreign intelligence relayed this intelligence to Washington, thus influencing the US to join the war.  During the Cold War, America’s Venona Project ‘revealed that sensitive documents were being sent to Moscow from the British Embassy in Washington.’[15]  By spying on its closest ally, the US were able to discover that there were two British double agents, Donald MacLean and Guy Burgess, working for the Soviets and had just defected.  These agents were compromising American national security, of which its ally had not been able to detect.  Another example of friendly spying was the Suez crisis in 1956.  Former US President Eisenhower, having been left out of the strategic planning of the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt, decided that it was imperative to know what his allies were up to.[16]  He utilised his imagery intelligence capabilities through the use of U-2 planes which were sent over British, French and Israeli military sites in the eastern-Mediterranean and the Middle East, and the reconnaisance through the U-2s gave Eisenhower important clues about his allies’ military operations for, and execution of, their invasion of Egypt.[17] From these examples, it is clear that even the closest of allies feel the need to spy on each other for the sake of preserving their own national interests.  Maybe it isn’t so inconceivable that GCHQ wiretapped Trump Tower in the run-up to the presidential elections, considering that he would become the leader of one-half of the “special relationship”.

The relationship between Britain and America has long been considered a close one, but even these two allies have been known to spy on each other.

Spying among friends

If one is caught spying on allies, it is of course damaging. The revelations that the NSA were spying on allied leaders complicated efforts to negotiate a transatlantic trade and investment agreement and gave ‘ammunition to people who are worried about the globalization of information and who would like governments do more to protect privacy and limit governmental data-collection.’[18]  And yet, one must note that when leaders such as the French President François Hollande and Merkel come out in anger against alleged spying, they are often doing so to appease their outraged publics.[19]. The above examples show how volatile and fluctuating alliances can be, thereby justifying why spying on each other is a necessity.

Allies spy on each other so as to know of other’s intentions and changes in policy.  Whilst it may be immoral to conduct espionage on our friends, it would seem damaging not to do so.  If spying has positive outcomes and the interests of a nation, then it is reasonable for a state to pursue such measures.  In light of the above question, one can look to recent developments between Britain and Spain over the long-contested territory of Gibraltar following Britain’s decision to leave the EU.  Spain’s illegal incursion into Gibraltar’s waters is yet another sign that alliances are fragile, with high chances of states undermining another’s sovereign interests, leading to the conclusion that spying can indeed take place amongst friends.

Anastasia Beck is a postgraduate student studying Intelligence and International Security in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London (KCL).  Anastasia’s research areas include counter-radicalization, the role of intelligence in both peace and conflict, and open-source intelligence.


[1] Walt, S. ‘News Flash: States Spy on Each Other’, Foreign Policy, Date accessed: 1st April 2017

[2] Ibid.

[3] Fisher, Max. ‘Why America spies on its allies’,–present)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sims, J. ‘I Spy…’, available here at

[7] Bucknam, M. ‘The Eisenhower Administration and the Suez Crisis: Spying on Allies and Friends’ National War College (2000) pg. 3

[8] Ibid pg. 5

[9] Bellaby, R. ‘What’s the Harm: The Ethics of Intelligence Collections’ Intelligence and National Security 27:1 (2012) pg. 108

[10] Ibid pg. 109

[11] Bitton, R. ‘The Legitimacy of Spying Among Nations’ American University International Law Review 29:5 (2014) pg. 1020

[12] Stout, M. ‘Can Spying on Allies Be Right?’ War on the Rocks Date accessed 1st April 2017

[13] Colby, E. ‘Why We Must Spy on Our Allies’ The National Interest Date accessed: 29th March 2017

[14] Ibid.

[15] Easley, L. ‘Spying on Allies’ Survival 56:4 (2014) pg. 143 DOI: 10.1080/00396338.2014.941545

[16] Fisher, M. ‘Why America spies on its allies (and probably should)’ The Washington Post Date accessed: 1st April 2017

[17] Ibid.

[18] Sims, J. ‘I Spy…Why Allies Watch Each Other’ Foreign Affairs Date accessed: 20th March 2017

[19] Ibid.

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