America’s own goal
30 Oct 2013|

What it means to be part of the Anglosphere (or, more precisely, what it means to be outside the Anglosphere) has apparently become very clear in the last week, following the revelation of America spying on European countries. Mind you, that shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise. The Washington Post published large extracts of the classified US Intelligence budget almost two months ago, and one of the more interesting items was a table of language proficiency payments for analysts at the CIA, NSA and other agencies. Here’s the list:

Language Civilian linguists


Arabic (all dialects)


Chinese (all dialects)










Persian (Farsi) – Iranian




Other (71 in total)


Twelve years on from 9/11, it’s not surprising to see Arabic near the top. And it seems that the pivot/rebalance is alive and well in the intelligence world. Russian might be explained away as a combination of Cold War habits and a prudent regard for the Russian Federation’s still very large nuclear arsenal. Portuguese and Spanish have obvious relevance in Latin America, and the DPRK explains the Korean.

Turning to the other European languages on the list, we could observe—perhaps being a tad generous—that there are Francophone parts of the world likely to be of interest to American security agencies. That’s not true for German, and I thought this would raise some eyebrows in Berlin when it was first published. But it took a further round of revelations, this time following some solid investigative journalism by the German outlet SPIEGEL which included the claim that the German Chancellor’s phone had been monitored, to turn this into a fully-fledged scandal.

There’s no doubt that this is a colossal PR disaster for the United States and, I’d argue, its five-eyes friends. The Washington Treaty established NATO in 1949, and America’s European partners were the frontline states in the Cold War for over four decades—with Germany being the most frontline of all. Given the depth of the security relationship, surely the best way for the US to find out what the Germans were thinking about security and other issues was to ask them? Instead, it now seems to be the case that some allies are more equal than others—and those that speak languages other than English are very much on the ‘less equal’ side of the balance. (Assuming, of course, that the United States has resisted the temptation to eavesdrop on its English-speaking five-eyes intelligence cooperation partners; Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.)

As Stuart McMillan wrote here yesterday, at the end of the day the Europeans will probably conclude that the benefits of having America engaged outweigh the downside that will follow from these now public espionage efforts. But the level of trust will be damaged significantly, and at the very least will take time to repair. There’s potential harm to American allies as well, and the UK will probably feel some of the pain as being implicated by association as a member of the five-eyes intelligence network in the eyes of its EU colleagues.

Beyond allied and aligned nations, these revelations undermine western credibility as far as criticism of Chinese cyber espionage activities is concerned. If spying on a country that has been a stalwart ally for more than half a century is OK, then it’s hard to argue that the trawling of cyberspace for secrets and other useable information isn’t. The bargaining power of the west in discussions about norms of behaviour in cyberspace has been badly devalued.

Finally, as with the revelations of widespread domestic eavesdropping, the US intelligence community hasn’t done itself any favours and one likely fallout is that its activities will be curtailed. Not only will spying on foreign leaders almost certainly be barred, the backlash in Europe has the clear potential to force the US to stop other activities, including some that are claimed to have been successful in identifying and defeating terrorist plots.

All intelligence activity requires a careful weighting of the costs and benefits—and not just in the dollars sense. A risk analysis should weigh the value of the intelligence sought against the full suite of potential costs should the operation fail or, as in this case, be exposed to the cold light of public scrutiny.

The costs of the NSA’s activities against its European allies generally, and Chancellor Merkel in particular, have done its security interests no good. And even if Europe and the US manage to patch things up, the impact on other American interests mean that the ramifications of its espionage against friends are likely to be substantial and enduring. Unless Germany is up to something really surprising and maintaining unprecedented secrecy about it, it’s hard to imagine what possible benefit could balance the predictable downside risk in this situation. Everything suggests that the United States just scored a dumb own goal.

Andrew Davies is ASPI’s director of research and executive editor of The Strategist.