‘America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.’
Today the Western World woke up to a string of sensationalist headlines; ‘Spy Shock’, ‘Embassies Targeted’, ‘Scandal’, reverberated around European media outlets this morning and EU leaders were quick off the blocks to point out to the government of the United States that if there is any truth to the espionage allegations, then there will be serious consequences for Euro-American trade relations.
But how much of this news story comes as a shock really? Western popular culture has been saturated with the written mythology and filmography where suave secret agents travel the world and meet their allies, who assist them cordially, but not totally openly either. The intelligence world does mirror aspects of Hollywood; Keith Jeffrey’s ‘MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949’, gives the historian an insight into the world of spies and ‘tradecraft’. Espionage scandals are nothing new. Governments have always wanted to know what others are doing and let’s face it, your friend is only really your friend as long as they (or you) want to be. Even if government A has the most cordial relationship possible with government B, government A’s mandate must still be concerned primarily with furthering the interests of government A. Embassies still send their communications, even from ‘friendly’ nations, in code for a reason! Realism at its best.
Espionage scandals abounded in Victorian England and the years leading up to the First World War. Fears of a communist led conspiracy and Germanic hegemonic aspirations led to the establishment of MI5 as a domestic counter-intelligence service. Erskine Childers, later executed during the Irish Civil War, wrote the widely read and highly influential ‘The Riddle of the Sands’, which theorised that a German invasion of Britain was at least possible, if not in the immediate offing. On the 22nd of December 1922, two British intelligence officers, Lieutenant Brandon and Captain Trench, were convicted of conducting espionage against Germany; the pair were discovered by a sentry after they had snuck into a German military base and photographed the installation). This was despite the fact that Britain and Germany were not officially enemies at this point, though speculation regarding naval assets was rife and intense.
Previous to this Captain Cyrus Hunter Regnart, Royal Marines and later the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary, had operated an intelligence network on continental Europe which spied on unfriendly nations and routinely used friendly nations to facilitate this action.
So what does this mean to us today? Basically, I for one am unsurprised that the US government is conducting espionage against its allies. Sometimes co-operating intelligence agencies don’t share their full information resources with brother and sister services. Nowhere is this more evident than in the damning intelligence reports post 9/11 in the US itself. Intelligence agencies have to trust other agencies in order for them to be able to trade information. But as the saying goes, can a leopard change their spots? A spy is still a spy and just because you are at peace with a nation now, does not mean that peace will continue.
Those EU leaders decrying this latest spy scandal might want to examine their own intelligence services and see whether or not they are targeting their own allies! I for one would not like to take a wager on that one.