Allies Have Always Spied on Each Other
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones is emeritus professor of American history at the University of Edinburgh and author of “In Spies We Trust: The Story of Western Intelligence.”
UPDATED OCTOBER 25, 2013, 10:19 AM
Spying on on the German chancellor. So what’s new? British codebreakers read German diplomatic traffic in World War I. When Berlin’s foreign minister Alfred Zimmermann sent a top-code message to Mexico saying join us in the event of war and you’ll get back the territories the United States won in 1846, the Brits decoded the message and gave it to American officials. President Woodrow Wilson was outraged. The event helped prepare the ground for America’s entry into the war on the side of the Allies.
Professions of shock at being spied on indicate either naivety or political opportunism. But the shock of revelation can have serious repercussions.
In the Washington naval disarmament conference of 1921-2, the codebreaking American “Black Chamber”spied on Japan’s diplomatic correspondence. U.S. negotiators found themselves playing poker in full sight of Japanese cards. So humiliating was this for Tokyo when the story leaked, that it strengthened the hand of the Japanese military, paving the way for the invasion of Manchuria and the Pearl Harbor attack.
Oh, and the Brits were in the 1921 poker game, too, decoding U.S. communications. Twenty years later, the British intelligence official Alastair Denniston commented on a proposal that in light of the now “intimate” relationship between America and Britain, the U.K. should cease to intercept US diplomatic telegrams. This was an admission that spying on U.S. top officials had been routine in the peaceful ‘20s and ‘30s. One interpretation of today’s British reticence on the Angela Merkel affair is that business continues as usual for British interceptors.
So it’s always happened, and no doubt always will happen. Professions of shock indicate either naivety or political opportunism. Either way, however, the shock of revelation is not trivial. As in the Japanese case, there can be serious repercussions. For a national leader to appear to have been off-guard and open to manipulation can be humiliating. The challenge for America is to keep itself informed without offending its allies.