Why allies spy on allies.

Military analysis.
Sept. 1 2004 6:21 PM

The Friendly Spook

Why allies spy on allies.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

The world is much changed since Henry Stimson shut down the State Department's cryptanalysis branch and sniffed, "Gentlemen don't read other gentlemen's mail." But what about friends' mail—do we read it, too? That is, do nations spy on their allies? Do they do so routinely? And is everybody all right with that?

Yes, yes, yes, and—up to a point, apparently—yes.

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The questions arise anew with reports that a Pentagon official named Larry Franklin is under suspicion for leaking classified documents to a lobbyist with the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, who in turn slipped them to an Israeli diplomat. Spokesmen for AIPAC and the Israeli government deny the stories; FBI sources insist the probe is real and has been under way for over a year. To sharpen the intrigue, it turns out that Franklin works with Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz, the high-level Pentagon officials who gained notoriety for their links to Israel and their fervent advocacy for war against Iraq.

Too little is publicly known as yet to make judgments about the Franklin case. The documents he allegedly leaked were about U.S. policy toward Iran. (Franklin was Feith's Iranian desk officer.) The motive behind the leak, the contents of the documents, their level of classification, whether they contained intelligence information—these matters are for now unclear in the many news stories and analyses about the probe. (For a fine summary of these stories, see the last few days' entries in Laura Rozen's blog.)

Whatever the Franklin affair turns out to be (espionage? unauthorized disclosure of classified materials? a pathetic misunderstanding?), it marks but the latest chapter in a long saga of spies and allies.

Why do allies need to spy on each other? Can't they just pick up the phone and ask each other what's going on? Sometimes, yes; but sometimes, no.

Many allies enjoy a formal "intelligence liaison." They share, trade, or consolidate assets and findings. During the Cold War, the nations of NATO had such arrangements. U.S.-Israeli relations were solidified after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel supplied the CIA with a massive cache of Soviet military hardware: tanks, fighting vehicles, artillery pieces, and so forth.

Yet there are times when allies don't want to share. Consider the following situation: Countries A and B are allies. Countries B and C are friends or, at least, trading partners. Countries A and C are enemies. Country A might want to spy on its ally B in order to learn things about its enemy C.

The world is teeming with such relations.

The most notorious instance involved, again, Israel: the case of Jonathan Pollard. Pollard is serving a life sentence for leaking extremely classified information to Israel in the 1980s. The U.S. government has never revealed just what Pollard leaked, but Seymour Hersh offered a summary five years ago in The New Yorker. Intelligence officials gave Hersh a rundown because President Bill Clinton had promised right-wing Jewish groups—who were lobbying for Pollard's release—that he would at least look into the case, and the intel officials were worried that Clinton might succumb to the pressure. To pre-empt such a move, they told Hersh just how serious Pollard's indiscretions were. If Hersh's report is true (and his sources on these matters tend to be excellent), the indiscretions were as serious as they can get: technical features of U.S. photo-reconnaissance satellites, operations of nuclear-missile submarines, details of the Strategic Air Command's nuclear-war plan. Officers also told Hersh that the Israeli government had passed on some of these secrets to the Soviet Union in exchange for a more relaxed policy toward Jewish emigration.