Our allies’ spooks don’t just spy on each other. They help each other change the law.

November 5, 2013
(Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)
(Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

The Guardian has a new story on the spying scandal which, like many, many other stories on this topic, quotes someone bloviating about the ‘shocked, shocked’ bit in Casablanca. However, the body of the article makes it clear that the really interesting story isn’t one about allies spying on each other. It’s one about how spying agencies within allied countries work together across borders to loosen national controls on what they can or cannot do.

The Guardian’s documents show how Britain’s NSA-equivalent, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), has been particularly enthusiastic in pushing for laxer controls in allied countries. The GCHQ helped the German intelligence services push for reform of ‘very restrictive … legislation’ on surveillance in Germany. It claims partial credit for the Swedish intelligence service’s success in pushing for a highly controversial law that allowed the intelligence services to tap into fiber optic cables. The GCHQ also gave Dutch intelligence legal advice on how best to push for changes in legislation.

Controversies between countries often obscure important relations across them. In this case, they obscure how intelligence agencies and homeland security/interior ministries can act as a tacit cross-national coalition, working together to weaken laws that limit the gathering of data. Since spying agencies share this data (and often turn to each other when they need particular analytic tools), they have a common interest in weakening laws across national jurisdictions. Everyone is focusing on disputes between countries over how to manage intelligence. They aren’t paying much attention to the issues that the Guardian story highlights – how intelligence services can work together across borders to weaken laws that aren’t in their interest.

As Abraham Newman and I have written about other transatlantic security issues, where we show how the last decade has seen the cementing of new cross-national alliances between security-focused actors aimed at weakening existing privacy laws. These coalitions don’t get very much attention – pundits and journalists prefer to focus on the big, splashy transatlantic fights and disputes, rather than the patient forging of new bureaucratic relationships in international forums that don’t get much public attention. Yet it’s the quiet politics of the gradual weakening of restraints and slow accretion of bureaucratic power that has the more important political consequences.

Henry Farrell is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He works on a variety of topics, including trust, the politics of the Internet and international and comparative political economy.
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