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Spying at the U.N.? Europe is shocked!

By 4.22.04

BERLIN -- The Captain Renaults of old Europe expressed "shock" in late February over allegations that the British had bugged the conversations of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. Tony Blair responded by saying (a) the UK abides by domestic law; (b) Great Britain adheres to international law; and (c) London does what it must to protect the interests of the nation. Bingo. Word last year was that the Bush administration was up to the same sort of thing. Imagine. Spying at the U.N. How shocking.

Don't get me wrong. Spying can be unpleasant. The CIA was once set up to bug the suite of a friendly Arab leader at a Gulf summit when, at the last minute, there was a change of rooms and the U.S. president ended up residing in the pre-wired space. But let's face it, indignation over spying is pretty silly. Most of us find this spying stuff intriguing, even entertaining. Search Google for "weird spy stories" and you get 156,000 hits. Try "How to Become a Spy" and there are 1,280,000 entries. "Is My Friend a Spy" gets you 1,360,000 items to peruse. They say spying is the second oldest profession. There are at least 100 mentions of spying in the Bible. Historians date spying at least as far back as 500 B.C. Google yields 4,410,000 hits for Ian Fleming's character James Bond. We celebrate the mystery and, yes, the deception. So do those Renaults, I bet.

There are different kinds of spying, of course, with countless methods, both "legal" and "illegal." Ethically there are a thousand shades of gray. Companies spy daily on employees to make sure they are not using work time to play computer video games or download porn. As a student I once sold books for Time-Life over the phone. I quit after day one when I learned that my phone calls -- to maintain "customer quality control" -- were being "monitored." Things are getting more complicated. Now Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags may help you, through use of a simple card, to gain entrance to your office. Or surveil your activity if you keep the card in your wallet.

True, there's also a form of innocent spying -- call it harmless snooping -- of which nearly everybody is at one time or another guilty. Like peering for a moment at the screen of the fellow's laptop across the aisle on the plane. I once sat behind Strobe Talbott, Madeleine Albright's deputy secretary of state, on a flight from Washington to Frankfurt. Strobe was on his way to Russia. Only my sterling character kept me from sneaking peeks as the Deputy typed away. (Was it a memo to his friend the President on a new bold arms control initiative?)

We Americans are funny about these things. In some states, "fuzz busters" for cars are legal. A 1971 New York lawsuit prevents police today from going into a Mosque under cover, even if the imam has been spewing pro-bin Laden rhetoric. You see, we can act preemptively in Iraq, but in New York the crime needs to be committed first before law enforcement can respond.

Among nations, the most curious spying is called "friendly spying," what we allies do to one another. A few years ago our European friends fumed over allegations that the U.S. was using intercepted phone calls and e-mails to advantage American companies. The French have a similar system, which intercepts around three million messages per minute. First class seats on Air France have always been thought to be bugged (with tidbits of business gossip passed on to hungry French competitors). In 1971 a former French spymaster actually admitted in his memoirs that Paris, having learned that the U.S. was about to devalue the dollar, used the information to profit handsomely by currency speculation.

Now America has a special relationship with Israel. We spy on Israel. Israel spies on us. Ditto Germany. During the Clinton administration I stayed in a Berlin hotel that sources later reported was bugged by the German government. That explained why our German friends just knew too much, too precisely, during trade negotiations, the day after the American team had stayed up all night privately, it thought, plotting strategy in its suite. Shocking. What? Gambling in Las Vegas?

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About the Author

Jeffrey Gedmin is director of the Aspen Institute Berlin.