‘Like a mammoth vacuum cleaner in the sky, the National Security Agency (NSA) sucks it all up: fax, home phone, cellular phone, email, telex … No one escapes. Not presidents, prime ministers, the UN Secretary General, the pope …’ – Rogue State (William Blum, 2001), p. 200.
When it comes to economic espionage, it is usually the People’s Republic of China that is frequently accused, with Russia a distant second (the latter’s alleged cyber activities more disruptive than acquisitive). But on the 29th of June, Wikileaks, in their ongoing ‘Espionnage Élysée’ campaign publishing top secret documents regarding American surveillance operations against France, confirmed what had long been suspected – that Washington is far from averse from state-driven industrial espionage of its own against its allies.
On the 23rd of June, Wikileaks exposed that three consecutive French presidents, as well as several cabinet ministers and the French ambassador to the USA, had had their phone conversations listened to by American operatives. That was embarrassing to the White House. Yet the revelation of a more than decade-long campaign tasked with the surveillance of the French economy could have far more serious repercussions.
There is the interception of all French corporate contracts and negotiations valued at $200 million or more. There is also the key exposé that it was not rogue elements within the NSA ‘going off the reservation’ but a predetermined economic espionage policy created by the US Director of National Intelligence. Within the cache of documents, are two long-term spying orders (‘collection requirements’) where it is ‘clear that the NSA has been tasked with obtaining intelligence on all aspects of the French economy, from government policy, diplomacy, banking and participation in international bodies to infrastructural development, business practices and trade activities’.
Wikileaks also show that a wider spectrum of officials than previously revealed had their communications intercepted, including the French Finance Minister, a French Senator, officials within the Treasury and Economic Policy Directorate, the French Ambassador to the United States, and officials with direct responsibility for EU trade policy. Though there is no evidence of sabotage, to have knowledge on French deliberations such as their national budgets and especially at the World Trade Organisation is beyond sensitive and would have given any American official briefing an advantage over their French counterpart.
In a way, France is paying the price for not being part of the Anglophone world. The USA, in conjunction with the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, operates the ‘Five Eyes’ (FVEY) system of intelligence sharing. Other organisations to fall under the aegis of FVEY include Brazil’s Petrobras, Al Jazeera and Aeroflot, but the covert activities against French industry and its captains top all that. As FVEY is such a multilateral partnership, all members were privy to the findings of the NSA. It suggests that Canada, Australia, New Zealand and especially the UK, a fellow European Union state, have all benefited in their dealings with the French Government.
The maverick head of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, still holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy under de facto house arrest, issued a statement on the nature of these top secret documents: ‘That covers not only all of France’s major companies, from BNP Paribas, AXA and Crédit Agricole to Peugeot and Renault, Total and Orange, but it also affects the major French farming associations. $200 million is roughly 3,000 French jobs. Hundreds of such contracts are signed every year’. He signalled his contempt for the UK connivance in being privy to these documents and added, ‘Do French citizens deserve to know that their country is being taken to the cleaners by the spies of supposedly allied countries? Mais oui!’
After the last batch of documents came out, Barack Obama had to apologise and the US ambassador was summoned by the French Foreign Minister for a severe dressing down. That operation had only taken place midway through George W. Bush’s term and ended in 2012. The 29th of June documentation that the economic spying had started in 2002 and was still in operation will significantly hurt Franco-American relations long into the future. Washington’s only hope is that the French are so distracted by the Greek currency crisis that large-scale public outrage will be muted, but it remains to be seen what kind of protest emerges.
The USA and France need each other in so many ways that eventually a way will be found to patch things up, even if the French maintain a certain wariness. That said, the US ambassador had better build up some command badges as more than one strip will be torn off this time around.