PARIS — The loud complaints of European leaders castigating Americans as vile spies who are betraying their allies are quite surprising. Oh, of course, perhaps they felt obligated to say something while they debated together in Geneva about what the common EU reaction to U.S. spying should be.
What is surprising is the seeming astonishment of these leaders. They have either never studied U.S.-European relations since 1945, or they are making fools of European citizens by pretending to be outraged.
American espionage targeting Europe and the rest of the world is common knowledge. It is not even the first time that the media has recounted such deeds. Everyone knows about it. The United States has been monitoring the world constantly for decades, and sometimes with Europe’s help. The global intelligence network ECHELON is the most well-known example of this. The fact that the CIA installs microphones everywhere and recruits agents within European governments themselves is nothing new.
The French journalist Vincent Nouzille recounted this in detail in his book Des secrets si bien gardés — Les dossiers de la Maison-Blanche et de la CIA sur la France et ses présidents 1958-1981 (in English, Well-Kept Secrets — The White House and the CIA’s Files on France and Its Presidents 1958-1981). It tells us that, as recently as 1945, and especially when General Charles de Gaulle came back to power in 1958, the U.S. carried out intense spying operations on France, but also on numerous other countries across the world. France's foreign policy and work on constructing its first atomic bomb were notably monitored.
In February 1960, American planes took off from Libya to collect samples of the radioactive cloud produced by France’s first nuclear test. In the 1960s, a military airplane entered the French air space to take photos of the Pierrelatte nuclear plant, near the French Alps. Facing French protest, the U.S. simply expressed a few regrets.
The advent of observation and wiretapping satellites starting around 1961 increased American intelligence capacities. Satellites such as the KH-11, at $1.5 billion each, take photos with high resolution. Magnum satellites intercept more than 100 million conversations every month. The recovered treasures sometimes even are displayed.
In 1995, President Bill Clinton gave his authorization to publically reveal hundreds of photos taken by these satellites in France and elsewhere — shamelessly and without any consideration. With a $40 billion military space budget, of which more than half is dedicated to intelligence, it is no surprise that there is so much recovered information.
One day, as I was in a meeting at the Pentagon, a Navy officer came up to me and whispered in my ear. “The test that you just carried out with your M4 missile was a success,” he told me. America’s ears had heard well. My friend Vassily Michine, who was the head of the Soviet lunar program, told me once that American spies were everywhere in the USSR, even in the bunker of the Soviet lunar rocket launch in Baikonur.
The KGB knew one of the Russian technicians was betraying them in favor of the U.S., but they never managed to discover him. The confirmation would arrive 30 years later, once the Cold War was over. During an auction at Sotheby’s in New York, where Michine was selling the journal he kept every day during the 1960s, a man gave him a photo of Michine taken in the Baikonur bunker by this Russian agent working for the U.S. The man disappeared as quickly as he had arrived. Thirty years later, the CIA was still showing off. Fair enough.
This is not news
Let’s not be naïve: Everyone is spying on everyone. And let’s be realistic and honest: Every country carries out intelligence gathering all the while disapproving of it when it finds itself on the receiving end. The Cold War might be over, but it does not mean that we live in a perfectly pacified world. Yesterday, military and political espionage against USSR prevailed. Today, it has become essentially economic and political, with numerous players to monitor. And France, with its General Directorate for External Security (DGSE), is part of the global spying landscape too.
Today, the U.S. is condemning China’s cyber espionage activities even while it does the same thing across the entire globe. As for me, I have spent 30 years of my life searching and collecting information on U.S. nuclear weapons, which did not stop me from teaming up with the Americans to exchange information on Soviet missiles.
The fact that politicians are surprised is in itself surprising, though that they protest about it is perhaps to be expected. In any case, there is one thing that we have known for a long time: the world is not black and white, and there is always war on somewhere. The only problem is that we longer know how to distinguish our friends from our enemies.
*Jacques Villain is a member of the French National Air and Space Academy.