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When Allies Steal Secrets

Such spying is common and often not benign.

September 27, 2004|J. Peter Scoblic | J. Peter Scoblic is the executive editor of the New Republic.

Friends and colleagues of Donald Keyser, a 61-year-old former State Department official suspected of passing government documents to Taiwanese intelligence officials, expressed shock at his arrest this month. "The hardest thing to understand is that the word 'integrity' comes to mind when I think of Don Keyser," Chas Freeman, a longtime China hand, told the Washington Post. Said David Shambaugh, director of the China policy program at George Washington University, "We're all just collectively stunned and asking each other what to make of this."

In a slightly different form, it's a fair question for the rest of us to be asking as well: What are we supposed to make of the fact that a friendly nation appears to be spying on the United States? The question seems particularly germane given that late last month Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin was reported to be under investigation for passing a draft of the president's policy on Iran to Israel via an influential pro-Israel lobbying organization in Washington. What was it these countries couldn't just ask for?

The answer, of course, is this: whatever they think they need that we won't give them. Spying, it turns out, is common among friends. According to the National Counterintelligence Center, more than 90 countries have an intelligence presence in the United States, and we're on relatively good terms with all of the chief culprits -- China, Japan, Israel, France, South Korea, Taiwan and India. They spy on the United States for the same reason our enemies do: National interests do not overlap perfectly. And, though many friendly spy cases involve industrial espionage, interests among allies can diverge on critical security issues as well. When that happens, intelligence work becomes a reflection of realpolitik at its most amoral, where self-interest is paramount, "friend" is a relative word and the only rule of the game is don't get caught. Taiwan and Israel are case studies in the process.

A 1979 law requires the United States to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, and over the last two decades we have supplied the island with billions of dollars in materiel. In April 2001, President Bush said the United States would "do whatever it took" to defend Taiwan from China and backed up his pledge by authorizing the sale of four Kidd-class destroyers and eight diesel submarines to Taipei.

For all that, Taiwan doesn't particularly trust us. The problem is that, while ostensibly committed to the island's defense, the United States is also clearly committed to improving relations with China. When the United States steps too close to the mainland -- as when Bush told Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao last December that he opposed Taiwanese moves toward formal independence -- Taipei gets anxious. So Taiwan might very well spy on us to learn how far toward independence it could go without losing U.S. support and at what point it could expect help from Washington, should Beijing become aggressive.

If Israel is spying on the United States to learn our Iran policy, it too is most likely trying to resolve this kind of ambiguity. Israel, whose greatest security concern is Iran's nuclear program, wants Washington to take a hard-line stance toward Tehran. Should internal debate within the administration tend toward dovish engagement, Israel might consider attacking Iran's nuclear facilities, as it did Iraq's in 1981.

Israel of course was behind the most famous friendly spying episode in recent memory. In 1986, Jonathan Pollard, a Navy civilian analyst, pleaded guilty to passing classified documents to the Israelis. The affair embarrassed Israel -- and Pollard is in his 18th year of a life sentence -- but as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, then Israel's minister of industry and trade, explained unapologetically at the time: "Israel does not receive from the U.S. all the information it needs."

The American attitude is equally dispassionate. A former U.S. senior intelligence official put it to me this way: "If a policymaker absolutely needs information that's essential to his job, and there's no other way you can get it, that's when a nation uses human intelligence" -- regardless of the target. In the 1980s, the official said, we knew that German companies were providing rogue states such as Libya with technology that could be used to manufacture weapons of mass destruction. The German government, however, not convinced of the evidence, would not share all its intelligence with the U.S. Did we act on our own to get it? Most definitely.

Though friendly spying is pervasive, the severity of the problem is less a function of frequency than of consequence. It matters less, for example, if France uncovers a trade secret than if Al Qaeda learns our military plans in Afghanistan. But, in measuring the damage done, one can't write off the loss of secrets as unimportant simply because they were taken by a friend. Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker reported in 1999 that the Israelis passed much of the information they got from Pollard -- possibly including U.S. nuclear war plans -- to the Soviets. It's an extreme case, but in espionage it's wise to remember that, although the enemy of my enemy may be my friend, the friend of my friend may also be my enemy.

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