Why Allies Send Spooks to America


Oct 25, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on October 25, 2004.

Allies as well as enemies have spied on the United States at home and abroad throughout America's history. As the world's only military and economic superpower, the United States continues to be the primary target of friendly and unfriendly intelligence agencies.

The 2000 "Annual Report to Congress on Foreign Economic Collection and Industrial Espionage" - an examination by U.S. government agencies of espionage threats to the nation - found that Japan, Israel, France, South Korea, Taiwan and India are the most active allies engaged in espionage against America.

In just the past few weeks, the FBI has arrested a former senior state department official for allegedly lying about a trip to Taiwan and is investigating whether he improperly passed documents to Taiwanese intelligence agents. The FBI is also investigating whether a defense department official passed classified material to Israel. And another FBI probe is looking at whether someone in the U.S. government passed classified information to Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, who in turn allegedly passed it to Iran.

Countries rarely acknowledge that they spy on or in America . For example, in response to the current FBI investigation of possible Israeli espionage, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon responded, "Israel does not spy in the U.S. I say this in the most emphatic way possible."

The United States has been a target for espionage going back to the days when British spies were hard at work during the Revolutionary War. During the cold war, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, CIA intelligence officer Aldrich Ames, and FBI agent Robert Hanssen all provided classified information about the United States to the Soviet Union. And of course, America has spied on friend and foe through the years.

The end of the cold war and the emergence of the United States as the world's only superpower have made America an attractive target for spies from other nations, including allies. Continuing innovations in military, economic and dual-use technologies by U.S. companies and government agencies tempt other countries to acquire the innovations through espionage. And U.S. military deployments around the world create a strong impetus for other governments to get secret information so they can better understand what the United States is doing today and planning to do.

In the last 20 years, numerous people have committed acts of espionage against the United States on behalf of allies. For example, Jonathan Pollard, who worked as a civil servant for the U.S. Navy, was arrested in 1985 on charges of spying for Israel. Pollard pleaded guilty and received a life sentence. Robert Kim, a U.S. Navy civilian computer specialist working at the Office of Naval Intelligence, pleaded guilty in 1997 to passing classified information to South Korea. Kurt Lessenthien, a navy petty officer, was convicted in 1996 of offering information about nuclear submarine technology to Russia.

In addition, intelligence agents from Pakistan, France, Taiwan and other allied countries have attempted to seize classified information on U.S. military and economic technology, strategic and military plans and policy positions.

Espionage by allied governments will continue in the future. American advances in satellite and spaced-based capabilities, biotechnology, nuclear technology and missile technology pose particular espionage concerns. Future coalition operations and government-to-government exchanges will offer opportunities for foreign intelligence gathering. American travelers abroad may be increasingly targeted.

Demographic changes in the United States will offer foreign governments the opportunity to recruit from émigré communities, especially those working for defense companies and research labs. Adversaries will increasingly utilize advanced cybertechnologies to penetrate and spy on the U.S. government, defense contractors and corporations. Foreign students, scientists, engineers, business front companies, delegations and other public and private sector employees in the U.S. will continue to present intelligence concerns.

There is little the United States can do to mitigate the demand for American military and economic technology through espionage. America's continuing status as the only superpower ensures that friends and foes will spy on the nation.

But the FBI, Congress and other government agencies can make sure that counterintelligence remains a top priority. This means identifying the goals, assets and operations of foreign intelligence services at home and abroad. It also means penetrating and disrupting these operations, and assisting U.S. companies and government agencies to minimize the opportunities for exploitation.

The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that "America means opportunity, freedom, power." These qualities make the United States an attractive target for foreign governments - even allies.

Seth G. Jones is an associate political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

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