Allies Aren’t Always Friends

Allies Aren’t Always Friends

Stewart Baker

Stewart Baker, a lawyer, was the assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush.

OCTOBER 24, 2013

To play the role it has played in the world for the last 70 years, the United States must be able to gather intelligence anywhere in the world with little or no notice. We never know where the next crisis will erupt, where the next unhappy surprise is coming from. It’s the intelligence community’s job to respond to today’s crises, but its agencies live in a world where intelligence operations take years to yield success. That makes it a little hard – and very dangerous — to create “intelligence-free zones.”

Obama and his administration are targets for the intelligence services of practically every nation on earth, including most of those complaining loudest.

Even the countries we usually see as friends sometimes take actions that quite deliberately harm the United States and its interests. Ten years ago, when the U.S. went to war with Iraq, France and Germany were not our allies. They were not even neutral. They actively worked with Russia and China to thwart the U.S. military’s mission. Could they act against U.S. interests again in the future – in trade or climate change negotiations, in Syria, Libya or Iran?

Of course no one likes it when they’re on the receiving end of intelligence gathering. As President Obama surely knows. He and his administration are targets for the intelligence services of practically every nation on earth, including most of those complaining loudest. That’s not because he set a bad example; he could abolish the N.S.A., the C.I.A. and the rest of the intelligence community tomorrow, and the U.S. would still be the world’s biggest target.

That’s just life and international politics. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel too knows quite well. She visited China right after public disclosures that the Chinese had penetrated her computer network, yet she managed to be “all smiles” while praising relations between the two countries as “open and constructive.”

Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald have gone around the globe disclosing U.S. intelligence actions in a way calculated to do the United States the greatest possible harm. But when the flaps and counterflaps are over, espionage will remain the way of the world.

The United States can’t stop gathering intelligence without running the risk of terrible surprises. So it won’t.

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