Daniel W. Drezner

On Espionage, France Does the Best Claude Rains Impression

The touchstone for hypocrisy in popular culture is this scene from Casablanca, in which Claude Rains’ character, Captain Reynaud, closes Rick’s bar on the flimsiest of pretenses:  I bring this up because of Glenn Greenwald’s revelations in Le Monde that the NSA has been spying, like, a lot, on France.  Here at FP, Shane Harris and ...

The touchstone for hypocrisy in popular culture is this scene from Casablanca, in which Claude Rains’ character, Captain Reynaud, closes Rick’s bar on the flimsiest of pretenses: 

I bring this up because of Glenn Greenwald’s revelations in Le Monde that the NSA has been spying, like, a lot, on France.  Here at FP, Shane Harris and John Hudson have noted that the French are shocked about these revelations.  The question is whether they’re genuinely shocked… or Claude Rains shocked. 

In the New York Times, Alissa Rubin’s reportage suggest the latter:

French officials called the spying “totally unacceptable” and demanded that it cease.

“These kinds of practices between partners are totally unacceptable, and we must be assured that they are no longer being implemented,” Mr. Rivkin was told, according to a ministry spokesman, Alexandre Giorgini.

The same language was used late Monday in a statement from President François Hollande describing what he had said in an earlier telephone conversation with President Obama.

However, in a discreet signal that some of the French talk may have been aimed at the government’s domestic audience, France did not call this episode a breach of sovereignty, as Brazil did last month after similar revelations….

[M]any observers both then and now suggested that the French government’s harsh tone was in part political theater rather than genuine outrage because France runs its own version of a spying program on the Americans, which came to light in 2010.

At that time, a previous White House director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair, tried to put in place a written agreement pledging that neither country would spy on the other’s soil — similar to the “gentleman’s agreement” that the United States has with Britain. The deal fell through in part because some members of both countries’ intelligence communities wanted to continue to spy on each other, said officials close to those negotiations.

In addition, the facts of the N.S.A. data collection in Europe have been known for months, which led two nonprofit groups that oppose the spying to describe it as “astonishing” and “cowardly” that the French government would portray itself as not knowing about the surveillance. It also became clear over the summer that France’s espionage agency, the General Directorate for External Security, carried out data collection on French citizens without clear legal authority, suggesting that although the technology used by the United States may be more sophisticated, electronic eavesdropping as an antiterrorism and anticrime tool is broadly practiced. (emphasis added)

Yeah, that’s Claude Rains shocked, not actually shocked.   

Rubin’s entire article is worth reading, as it also addresses the Mexican government’s response to spying allegations there — and a similar kind of Claude Rains-style reaction. 

As I’ve blogged previously, I’m extremely dubious that any kind of international regime will ever genuinely restrict espionage activities.  Monitoring by NGOs, the press and whistleblowers might cause the occasional flare-up in attention, but eventually it disappears into an SEP field

As a coda to this point, it’s worth re-reading this passage from John Le Carré’s The Secret Pilgrim, in which George Smiley explains the permanence of the espionage profession to new recruits: 

Spying is eternal.  If governments could do without it, they ever would.  They adore it.  If the day ever comes when there are no enemies left in the world, governments will invent them for us, so don’t worry.  Besides–who says we only spy on enemies?  All history teaches us that today’s allies are tomorrow’s rivals. Fashion may dictate priorities, but foresight doesn’t. For as long as rogues become leaders, we shall spy.  For as long as there are bullies and liars and madmen in the world, we shall spy.  For as long as nations compete, and politicians deceive, and tyrants launch conquests, and consumers need resources, and the homeless look for land, and the hungry for food, and the rich for excess, your chosen profession is perfectly secure, I can assure you. 

Am I missing anything? 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola