Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A delicate dance: France responds to the NSA

Following their earlier reporting, Le Monde is now claiming that the NSA targeted French diplomats at the UN and at the French Embassy in Washington (the BBC has a de-emotionalized summary).

Are we supposed to be shocked?

Look, I get that the French Government is angry. As a result of Snowden's leaks, President Hollande is being forced to navigate a tripartite political minefield - expressing dissatisfaction to sate populist anger, but doing so in a way that averts damage to the US relationship and avoids undesired attention from flowing towards DGSE SIGINT programs. This last point is of critical importance. French Intelligence doesn't simply collect on security/foreign policy related targets, they attempt to siphon data from US Intelligence platforms and they aggressively target private companies - engaging in industrial espionage of the type that characterized the KGB. They also monitor French citizens with zealous alacrity. In short, their behavior is far from sanctified.

But let's be clear, the NSA related accusations are far from surprising. Informational awareness is a cornerstone of international diplomacy. It makes sense and it's nothing new. As Susan Rice (apparently) put it, ''[NSA activities at the UN] helped me know... the truth, and reveal other [countries'] positions on sanctions, allowing us to keep one step ahead in the negotiations.'' As I've noted before, the US has understandable reasons to spy on European allies - interests align at certain junctures and separate at others.

All of this speaks to a broader point. No alliance is perfect. The US-Israeli intelligence relationship provides one such example of this truth. Ultimately, deep trust is contingent upon a long term, proven relationship. Like that of the 'five eyes' community (and specifically the US-UK intelligence alliance). Even then, complications are still present.

In the end however, defining interests define a relationship. As was the case with Brazil, this minor scandal will die down. Its perpetuation serves neither France nor the United States.

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