LONDON - Amid the growing furor over allegations that the United States spied on some of its closest allies in Europe – including German Chancellor Angela Merkel – a quiet refrain is being repeated by intelligence insiders across the continent: We all do it.
“Finding out what other governments are thinking is what [intelligence] agencies do,” a former British intelligence official said on the condition of anonymity.
Those words were echoed by the U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper, who told Congress on Tuesday that it’s “kind of a basic tenet” of U.S. intelligence gathering to determine the intentions of foreign leaders.
"That's a hardy perennial as long as I have been in the intelligence business,” Clapper said.
Clapper said the outrage and surprise expressed by representatives of allies in recent days was naive or disingenuous and reminded him of a line from the movie "Casablanca."
"'My God, there's gambling going on here?' It's the same kind of thing," he said.
The admissions come amid a slew of exposes allegedly revealing the details of American spying operations, which have prompted outbursts of anger from some European governments.
According to Germany’s Der Speigel, the National Security Agency bugged Merkel's cellphone for more than 10 years. In the wake of the reports, Germany summoned the American ambassador for the first time in living memory, an unprecedented post-war diplomatic rift.
Merkel may well have not been alone: Newspaper reports based on information provided by former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden suggest the NSA spied on the leaders of at least 35 countries.
Spain’s El Mundo reported that the NSA spied on millions of phone calls in Spain over a single month last year, citing information provided by Snowden.
The French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault declared himself “deeply shocked” by reports that the NSA recorded millions of French phone calls.
But former head of French intelligence Bernard Squarcini sounded more surprised at the claims that the political class did not know about the snooping.
“I am amazed by such disconcerting naiveté. You’d almost think our politicians don’t bother to read the reports they get from the intelligence services,” he told French newspaper Le Figaro. “The Americans spy on French commercial and industrial interests, and we do the same to them because it’s in the national interest to protect our companies.”
American officials practically expect to be spied on by foes and friends alike, Kurt Volker, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, told Britain’s BBC Radio 4.
“I can’t believe anyone is terribly surprised. I mean, every government in the world tries to collect the best info that it can and that’s true of the German, American, British, French and countries all over the world,” he said. “I was government official for many years and I assumed my cellphone and my email account was susceptible to foreign intelligence services spying.”
Not all cellphone spying involves listening in to calls, according to the former British intelligence official. Analysis of who is calling who can be valuable without the much more difficult task of listening in to the call itself.
“You get a picture of who is friends with who, and their friends of friends,” he said. “It’s like Facebook – incredibly helpful if you want to sketch out a network of contacts.”
So while Merkel may be outraged by allegations that the NSA listened in on her conversations, and monitored millions more, she shouldn’t be surprised, according to Professor Antony Glees, director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at Britain's University of Buckinghamshire.
“This is par for the course,” he said. “Countries eavesdrop on other countries. If you have Angela Merkel’s telephone number you will listen in to it if you can.”
But does it matter that countries snoop on friends and allies?
According to Glees, in 1929 then-Secretary of State Henry Stimson said “Gentlemen do not read other gentlemen's mail."
“And in 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Winston Churchill stopped the U.K. government spying on them saying: ‘They have become our friends and we do not spy on friends’.”
“He is the last prime minister who I can recall said we should stop spying on friend.”
Tracy Connor of NBC News contributed to this report.
First published October 29 2013, 2:13 PM