Guest Post: What Are The Boundaries Of 'Legitimate' Espionage?

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Robert Farley via The Diplomat,

Are the norms of appropriate espionage changing? Glenn Greenwald’s new book, based on revelations from Edward Snowden, critically highlights an episode from the 2010 UN Security Council vote on sanctions against Iran.  At the behest of U.N. ambassador Susan Rice, the NSA targeted the delegations of at least four countries for surveillance and analysis in order to provide the U.S. with better intelligence on how those states might vote.  Although the overall impact remains unclear, this collection could have given the U.S. the ability to make targeted “side payments” to the countries in question, to frame its rhetoric differently, or to have a better sense of the progress of the campaign.

Greenwald’s use of this example has evoked some debate among diplomatic and intelligence analysts, as it strays far from the central themes of the Snowden Project, which involve mass data collection and global public surveillance. Along with the recent indictment of five PLA officers on charges of cyber espionage, it drags the focus onto the question of how nations spy on one another, and where the appropriate boundaries for “legitimate” espionage lie.

The UNSC incident was reminiscent of one of the most famous cryptography successes of the 20th century, the U.S. intercept of Japanese information at the Washington Naval Conference in 1921. Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom disagreed about where the ratios limiting naval construction should fall, with the Anglosphere powers arguing that the great distances of the Pacific meant that Japan could manage its defense with fewer ships. While the United States argued for a 10:6 ratio in capital ship construction, Japan held out for a 10:7 ratio.

Led by the remarkably colorful Herbert Yardley, U.S. cryptographers broke Japanese codes and provided U.S. negotiators with crucial information about how far, precisely, the Japanese were willing to push their opposition to the proposed warship ratios. In the end, the Japanese accepted the U.S. proposal, allowing the Treaty (and eventually, its successors) to move forward and substantially reduce the number of warships in global navies. Not incidentally, it helped relieve the enormous pressure that the naval race was putting on the British and Japanese economies. Indeed, the biggest issue for Japan may not have been the codebreaking itself, but rather the later public announcement of the intercept, which humiliated the military and the diplomatic corps. Embittered by the lack of government support and impoverished by the stock market crash of 1929, Yardley detailed these achievements in 1931’s The American Black Chamber. This resulted in worldwide attention to the codebreaking success, and a lifetime blacklist for Yardley.

But isn’t the UNSC different? In some ways, yes; the UNSC is a long-term, established institution that’s key to international governance. But then the point of the Washington Naval Treaty was to conclude a viable, sustainable global peace. Every participant wanted, and in some cases desperately needed, to achieve an agreement on the limitation of naval weaponry. The only question that cryptography helped resolve was “who shall this viable, sustainable global peace favor the most?” Of course, the peace did not remain viable or sustainable, but it’s hard to argue that U.S. cryptography was decisive in pushing Japan to renounce the system of naval arms limitation.

The indictment of the five accused Chinese hackers raises similar questions. The United States and other countries have engaged in cryptography for quite some time to gain advantages in trade negotiations. The theft of intellectual property doesn’t seem such a large departure from this practice, especially given that the theft of foreign military and economic secrets was celebrated, rather than frowned upon, a century ago. This doesn’t mean that the Department of Justice was wrong to indict the hackers, but rather that we should perhaps all approach questions of economic and diplomatic espionage with a trifle less indignation.


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lakecity55's picture

You do not indict serving officers of an opposing force in public.

The people who did this are insane.

AlaricBalth's picture

"...we should perhaps all approach questions of economic and diplomatic espionage with a trifle less indignation."

Mr. Farley. Economic and diplomatic espionage benefits the domestic oligarchs and the corporate class, not the people of the United States. To ask me to temper my indignation is either irresponsibly naive or just another example of The Diplomat showing its true colors as a mouthpiece for the status quo. Personally, I believe it is the latter.

macholatte's picture



The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.

Sun Tzu

icanhasbailout's picture

No matter where we set the standards, as long as there ARE standards, I'm pretty sure fake immunization programs will fall outside of them.

Anusocracy's picture

The world would be a far better place if those who want to spy on others didn't exist.

strannick's picture

According to the CIA and NSA, what are the limits of spying?

The depths of hell...?


CH1's picture

The boundaries are What They Can Get Away With, and no more.

And "get away with" means, "Until our serfs start disobeying us."

Obedience is slavery.

boogerbently's picture
"What Are The Boundaries Of 'Legitimate' Espionage? Someone else. (no matter who you ask) 
Tarshatha's picture

One spy is worth a thousand soldiers.

Azannoth's picture

At the same time highest order Israeli spies are being sent back after getting caught on Visa violations(sic.)

TheMeatTrapper's picture

I look forward to the Chinese indicting US military officers. 

Cognitive Dissonance's picture

'Legitimate' is in the eyes of the beholder and the beholden. One man's 'legitimate' is another man's outrageous behaviour.

prains's picture

isn't "legitimate" espionage an oxymoron?


just askin

Cognitive Dissonance's picture

In the same manner as "Rules of War" is. I can kill you using all these methods.........except those over there because they are especially cruel and inhumane. Cus we don't want to make TOO much of a mess, now do we?

SilverIsKing's picture

Another oxymoron is gun free zone.

Show me a gun free zone and I'll show you a gun.

TeamDepends's picture

Legitimate espionage is kind of like "acceptable skirt lifting".

McMolotov's picture

DHS Manual, page 69:

"Skirt lifting is an important tool in the fight against terrrrism. The only people who are against skirt lifting are those who have something to hide, like a bomb, or worse — two sets of genitalia."

TeamDepends's picture

"......and never, ever forget, two sets of genitalia could mean ANYTHING!  A Scud, an Abrams, a surface-to-grotto missile..."

Double.Eagle.Gold's picture

I was wondering

If a person has two sets of genitalia,


Are they likely to be twice the arse-hole as well???



NoWayJose's picture

Get Smart - use the Cone of Silence!

intric8's picture

I doubt putin and Xi will allow themselves to ge eavesdropped. They're using unassembled encoded encrypted communication through 10th party participants for serious stuff and coursing their nonsense personal correspondence through gmail just for fun and laughs. lol

user2011's picture

Chinese are too stupid to put NSA and NSA leaders to international court for espionage.  

litemine's picture

And the World should charge the CIA, backed by the American Government's Fiat.......Cash for everyone.

Dr. Engali's picture

I don't know, but I've always considered spying on you enemies as legitimate...... Spying on every freaking person on the planet seems a little overboard and paranoid to me. But what do I know? I'm just a big dumb bitter clinger from Indiana.

Anusocracy's picture


Not South Bend I hope.

nmewn's picture

Spot on Doc.

The author is attempting to conflate espionage (spying) among nation-states with Stasi-style spying on everyone.

His purpose, of course, is to condition the reader to accept this intrusive activity as a "normal thing" and plant the seeds of complacency, so that the average Joe takes no counter measures against it, like a normal nation or corporation would.

Which in its own way, identifies HIM as an agent against us.

Ghordius's picture

+1 mnewn. spying has many facets. on who? why? how do you store the data? do you leak the information? to who? do you act on information? how? again, who profits? who is damaged by it? all this even in the realm of espionage among nation-states

I missed that little pesky detail on spying on citizens, both national and foreign allies. must be conditioning. thanks

nmewn's picture

We see it everywhere these days Ghordius, the conditioning, the underlying purpose of what they we're fucking stock animals, being bred to be docile and not kick the fences down on the way to the slaughter house...and it extends to corporations too.

Corporate-Government officials at a news conference: "You see, we are just putting these street cameras at every intersection FOR YOU, for your own safety, your families safety, the publics safety.  Whats that you say? You think the state & corporations would make money with "profit sharing arrangements" through traffic fines at these locations on the very same roads the public maintains with their own taxes and fees? Tut-tut. Why, you must be delusional or paranoid and in some serious need of government re-education."

Well, all we can do is point out the obvious conflicted nature of these things as they are rolled out of the back of the feed truck for our brother animals to consume.

And maybe, just maybe, destroy a few fences along the way, so they'll have a clear path to stampede the ranch house and trample those inside into a bloody mess ;-)

Ghordius's picture

+1 nmewn. we disagree on very little, I note

in fact, I see only a difference in personal preferences

I prefer not to see myself even remotely as animal, and more as co-sovereign of "the state". the state is there to serve me. that armed goon over there is my armed servant, and he is to be reminded of that. that politician next to me is my empowered servant, and has to be reminded of that

and when they forget, it's my duty to remind them. including corporations, who were given their special rights and privileges in my name

guess this just proves that I'm a fundamentally arrogant bastard, yet I still prefer to go down as a citizen instead of as an animal or a slave

but again, we are also products of our history, and here on the european continent there was never a New World to be shaped in a New Way, particularly an individualistic one

nmewn's picture

Some animals are more clever than others while some just think they are ;-)

Take your "average politician" or government worker. People (like animals) being what they are, have self interest. There is nothing wrong with that, IMHO, in fact its a natural instinct of survival as long as we all recognize it.

Now, I can certainly understand how someone would be motivated (or profess to be motivated) by "patriotism" or compassion for their fellow man and make a career from it but it would seem to me they would also have to be above the preference...because of the power they are entrusted with by us.

I guess my expectations of them are too high and I have always considered them beneath me on the societal scale, as you say, they are supposed to be our servants...not the other way around.

So when their self interest comes to overtake ours, I tend to get a little pissed about it because they are not better than us. On the contrary, by and large they are the worst of us who can't seem to make it in our world, becoming the parasitic thieves we see now and in the process trying to change our world into theirs.

weburke's picture

what technology in your home are you assuming is dumb


Pee Wee's picture

Said another way, when serving Fascist shit sandwiches change the bread and it's Constitutional.


nmewn's picture


Law has become a form of chalk art for politicians, that they sell on the street corner to the highest bidder as the voter ooh's & ahh's over it, only to vanish with the first passing rainstorm.

Its time we recognize what it is.

q99x2's picture

Look we have some guy that people call Obama. No one seems to know who he really is. Anyhow he is president. Isn't that enough fucking espionage for you.

Atomizer's picture

This Kenyon niggar is up a creek without a paddle.

Double.Eagle.Gold's picture

your suggestion

regarding a creek


is just plain mean spirited, and indicates possible racism.

you will be visited shortly for re-education

New_Meat's picture

and"Legitmiate Espionage"

"Military Intelligence"

"Jumbo Shrimp"

don't cha' know

- Ned

[ed.] and prains beat me to the comment:

4787440 prains

isn't "legitimate" espionage an oxymoron?
KickIce's picture

All kinds of things are tolerated when oligarchs can create money out of thin air and there are record profits and bonuses to be handed out.  My guess is that when the SHTF those tolerances will be severely tightened.

Pee Wee's picture

Tolerated is not the word.  

Conditioned response is more appropriate.  With Fascist media and fraud money the common man wants nothing to do with the 'USA' or anything at all whatsoever with fabricated "patriotism."

Ask anyone under 35, the USA is a corpse waiting to burn.  There is zero continuity for the future, the young want out.   Who can blame them as it is them in the incorporated blender. Take the temperature of the up and coming and they are all going. Two world wars and millions dead so crooked business can keep on fucking.

Anecdotally, the younger generation doesn't hold any boomer in even low-regard.   Gen-BOOM has shit in their own well and the young all stink.  It's generational alright. 


KickIce's picture

Fair enough,but I still prefer tolerated and/or rationalized.  They know damn well what they are doing is wrong but are unwilling to lift a finger as long as they are benefiting.  Only when the SHTF do they suddenly get "religion".

zipit's picture

You are eeither with us, or you're a terrorist and we will use executive order xyz to do whatever we want to you for as long as we want.

Pee Wee's picture

When the mafia has more respect than business and banking something has to pop.

Obamanism's picture

Spying = Stealing information by stealth. Is it a crime to steal? Then it is a crime to spy.
The Purpose of spying is obtaining information by stealth, as said above, the crime is not spying, the crime is being caught or found out. Good spying is never found out, it is done unaware of the Person, company or Country being spied on.

When the spying is found out, i.e. the spy is caught or information leaked then it will be a crime.
Like a dog barking at an intruder committing crime, is the dog guilty as the criminal? So is Greenwhald and Snowden guilty of altering us to the crime of being spied upon, like a dog barking in the night, or are the Government alphabet agencies guilty of being caught spying on us?
What punishment should be given? In the olden days a spy was killed, usually a treason charge, if found out.
What punishment would be appropriate these days?
By Federal agency standards a medal and a good pension and seed money to go into private business.

Spying is engrained into our national being, like a living parasite that the body depends on for life.
Kill the parasite will kill the body.

intric8's picture

Japan agreed, and it the bottom line was it was ok for them because the us had no bases in striking distance of japan.

I always wondered how britain and the us couldve monitored the exact amount of ships japan had in their fleet. I guess warship manufacture is a high profile enterprise. Difficult to hide such activity.

Ghordius's picture

before WWI it was more difficult, and British spies used often private sailing yachts with a tendency to have problems in the middle of harbours

afterwards it became easier, the ships bigger, and capital ships became objects of national pride, not to be hidden anyway (this was reserved for submarines programs, which the British vehemently opposed as unfair)

weburke's picture

maybe you could add to your "always wondered" list, how did japan keep equal to us in aircraft carrier technology.

Ghordius's picture

"...we should perhaps all approach questions of economic and diplomatic espionage with a trifle less indignation"

like the wholesale spying on the EU? in particular, the trade delegations? the one engaged on the secret talks for TTIP?

no, thanks but no. I'll keep my indignation. it's bad enough that those damn megacorporations have insisted on secret talks (at the discussion stage). but engaging partners and allies in trade talks... and then spying on their delegations... and then using this information for blackmail on a personal level...

nope. Uncle Sam has crossed a line, there. we do understand that "it's all about money" in America, but this went too far, in the same way that the CIA went to far when it engaged in wholesale kidnappings and torturing flights all over Europe for the sake of War Against Terror after 9/11. that was rage. this is methodical double-crossing for the sake of AgriBiz CEO's bonuses wishing to flood our markets with their damn GMO food 

Obamanism's picture

"damn megacorporations have insisted on secret talks (at the discussion stage). " That would be a good use for spying, finding out what our corporate masters have in store for us.

Knowing the MSM they would cruxify the spy not the corporate wrong doings that was found out.

Having "Secret talks" means the megacorporations have something nasty to hide. They have something to hide, then "We The People" have something to fear.

intric8's picture

Your point being we havent a clue how much info the nsa/cia has on organizations and decision makers across the globe, what info they've gathered up till today, how they're using it for govt advantage, how much secret info finds its way into the corperate sphere, etc. Simply put, we should assume they know most everything meant to be secret transpiring these days. Intelligence operations have aggregated well beyond the confines of targeted military spying. Now it resides under the bs 'national security' auspice, justifying everything under the sun as a-ok for spying

Peter Pan's picture

It seems to me that Richard Nixon was a saint by comparison and that Watergate was a totally amateur event by today's standards.