"If we spy for military security, why shouldn’t we spy for economic security?"
Those were the words not of an aggressive Chinese spy but none other than Stansfield Turner, the Carter-era CIA director, who in 1992 argued that the United States should more aggressively carry out intelligence operations aimed at securing America’s leading economic position in the world.
If it weren’t for matters of patriotism, the former CIA director probably wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at allegations of Chinese spying unveiled by a Pennsylvania grand jury and the Department of Justice on Monday.
Indeed, the tactics the Obama administration has accused China of using have also been debated at the highest levels of the U.S. government as possible instruments of American power. Other countries haven’t been so gun shy and have carried out operations strikingly similar to those a Pennsylvania grand jury have accused Chinese spies of carrying out.
In the 1970s and 1980s, French agents planted moles inside IBM and Texas Instruments and forwarded the material they collected to a French computer company. Microphones planted in the seats of Air France to pick up talk among traveling businessmen have become a piece of intelligence lore.
The French, it seems, think Americans should feel flattered at the attention. "In economics, we are competitors, not allies," Pierre Marion, the former French intelligence boss, once said."America has the most technical information of relevance. It is easily accessible. So naturally your country will receive the most attention from the intelligence services."
But even if there is scant evidence of American companies spying on behalf of, say, General Motors, U.S. spies have certainly embraced the notion of economic espionage that Robert Gates, then the director of the CIA, laid out in the early 1990s. In 1995, for example, the New York Times revealed that U.S. agents aggressively spied on Japanese officials engaged in trade negotiations with the United States.
More recently, documents released by Edward Snowden showed that U.S. agents spied on the Brazilian oil giant Petrobras. Other documents revealed that U.S. and British spies targeted the European Union official responsible for competition policy and sensitive anti-trust cases. And according to the New York Times, the NSA targeted servers belonging to the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in a purported effort to determine the company’s links with the Chinese army.
This turn toward espionage and companies and strategic industries is of a part with the changes visited upon the American intelligence community following the fall of the Soviet Union, when the CIA went through something of an existential crisis. With its main adversary now defeated, what would be the purpose of the agency and against whom would it fight? In the go-go days of the early 1990s, before the emergence of a new terrorist threat, the agency alighted upon economic competitors as its new focus.
In 1992 Gates, observed the "increased importance of international economic affairs as an intelligence issue." The agency had been forced to adjust accordingly. "Nearly 40 percent of the new requirements are economic in nature," Gates said. "The most senior policymakers of the government clearly see that many of the most important challenges and opportunities through and beyond the end of this decade are in the international economic arena."
But the agency, he emphasized, would not engage in commercial spying — that is, passing on helpful information to U.S. companies. A 2007 CIA paper documented the tortured debate over whether the United States should spy on behalf of its corporations. The problems, the paper concludes, are myriad and a decision to engage in corporate espionage could spur international conflict. Moreover, the paper argues, the benefits of corporate espionage are difficult to calculate and impossible to evaluate against the costs.
The Chinese, like the French, have made a different calculation.
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.| Report |
Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children.| Situation Report |