Spying on your allies is normal

Even the best of friends have divergent interests and sometimes compete with one another: that is why intelligence is necessary.

The world is a complicated place. We usually see the nation state as the pinnacle of organisation and governance today: this was of course not always the norm.

In fact, the nation state is a relatively new concept in human history, having become the default only over the past few centuries (empires and sub-state entities dominated before).

Modern nation states are defined by a set of borders (whether these are truly WELL defined is a whole different issues: just look at the decades-long dispute between Pakistan and India over Kashmir to see what I mean) and a set of interests. The latter are determined by governments and are, at least in theory, reflective of those who put those governments in place, assuming there is an electorate with that power.

Those interests need to be protected – and in some cases projected. The way to do so ranges from diplomacy to trade to coalition-building to the use of military force (either unilateral or within the aforementioned coalitions). Some nations will indeed go to extraordinary lengths to procure and secure their ‘interests’.

Another tool in a state’s arsenal is intelligence. Spying is often nicknamed the ‘world’s second oldest profession’ and for good reason: determining the intentions and capabilities of those who challenge your interests is vital for your success. As states have a tendency to hide their own intentions such are only discoverable through surreptitious means. That means intelligence.

There are a whole host of ‘intelligences’ out there that tend to be referred to by acronyms: SIGINT (signals intelligence), HUMINT (human), IMINT (imagery), OSINT (open source), and even GARBINT (garbage, i.e. going through refuse to glean nuggets of useful data).

We also divide this endeavour into several categories in accordance with the ultimate goal (i.e. what are we seeking to learn): security intelligence (e.g. terrorism), military, economic and foreign (the intentions of foreign states).

And states form intelligence alliances in which they pool their resources and share their collection.

While most such arrangements are secret, perhaps the best known one is the so-called ‘5 Eyes‘ relationship among Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US. It is the gold standard for sharing intelligence, including some very sensitive types of data.

Here is where it gets complicated. These different forms of intelligence are often in conflict and need to be managed separately. Country A, for example, may cooperate with country B on the gathering of security intelligence, but be in competition when it comes to economic intelligence. In other words, a security alliance may not extend to an economic one.

This is all completely natural and was something I came up with very frequently during my 32-year career in Canadian intelligence (especially when I worked in SIGINT at Communications Security Establishment – CSE). That organisation was tasked by the Canadian government with, among other things, collecting, processing, analysing and preparing what we called ‘foreign’ intelligence. In Canada, this is defined as (taken from the CSIS Act):

(…)the collection of information or intelligence relating to the capabilities, intentions or activities of any foreign state or group of foreign states…

This section was usually referred to in short as “Section 16” collection (it was listed in Section 16 of the Act). It gave CSIS (and by extension CSE, although the latter predated the former as an agency by decades) the authority to collect information that would advance Canada’s foreign (and economic) policies. What exactly was collected was determined by priorities and requirements established by senior government officials.

The nation states targeted for this collection were not widely discussed in the open for what I would hope the reader would see as valid reasons. Simply put, it would not be in the interests of Country A for Country B to realise it was being ‘spied on’, especially if the two nations were allies on other fronts (military, security, etc.).

And yet when news is released that this form of intelligence gathering is happening it often leads to embarrassment and/or ‘outrage’. I was reminded of this when I came across a recent story in the Dutch media entitled “U.S spied on allies, including Netherlands, through Denmark”. Apparently, the American SIGINT agency, NSA, “abused a cooperation agreement with Denmark to spy on allies in Europe”.

Cue the outrage!

Hurt feelings aside, this kind of activity is normal: all states do it. The fact that one country can see another as an ally on one front and as a competitor against which it needs to collect intelligence on another should shock only the extremely na├»ve. When stories like these break, anger is feigned, ‘apologies’ are offered and we all get back to work. No serious state is surprised by any of this.

A good way to summarise what all this entails was provided by a spokesperson for the Dutch Secret Service: “Everyone spies.”


Move on folks. Nothing to see (or hear) here.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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