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Why would US spy on friends? Because it can, and it makes sense, experts say.

The scandal suggests US technological capabilities have outstripped prudent policy, but even friendly countries have divergent interests and 'it’s really a polite fiction' they don't spy on each other.

By Staff writer / October 25, 2013

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses a news conference during a European Union leaders summit in Brussels Friday.

Francois Lenoir/Reuters

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Washington

As the scandal over the United States spying on friends and allies expands beyond German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone to perhaps dozens of other countries, one question lingering in the background is: Why spy on friends anyway?

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The basic answer, some national intelligence and security experts say, is that relations among countries are essentially based on interests, and no matter how friendly countries may be, their interests are rarely exactly the same.

“We and Germany don’t always see eye-to-eye on some important issues,” says James Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “One way to reassure yourself about the direction an ally like Germany is heading on one of those issues is to know what Germany is saying.”

In recent years the US and Germany have had their differences on issues ranging from technology trade with Iran to how to counter Chinese cyberespionage, Mr. Lewis notes. And beyond such areas of disagreement, the US would also have an interest in knowing Germany’s thinking on issues with global implications where it is playing a central role, he adds.

“Germany pretty much kept Europe afloat in the [2008] financial crisis,” says Lewis, citing an example of a fast-moving global challenge where the US would have wanted as much information as possible.

“If Germany had decided to stop supporting Greece, for example, it would have had major global repercussions,” he adds. “It would have been important for us to know that.”

It was French World War II statesman Charles de Gaulle who famously quipped that “No nation has friends, only interests,” but in the current uproar over National Security Agency spying on American allies, France is taking a different tack.

French President Francois Hollande, saying spying among friends is “unacceptable,” on Friday joined Chancellor Merkel in demanding talks with the US aimed at setting new rules for the intelligence-gathering road.

At a meeting of European Union leaders in Brussels, Merkel said relations with the US had been “severely shaken” by the spying allegations, and said damaged trust would have to be rebuilt through the imposition of new rules governing surveillance activities.

“Obviously words will not be sufficient,” she said.

That the NSA could even consider tapping into – “tasking,” in the community’s jargon – Merkel’s cell phone reflects the reality both of how relatively easy it has become to do that, and of how information-gathering and information-storing capabilities have exploded over the past decade.

With intelligence capabilities expanding in ways unimagined just a matter of years ago, “It becomes an accretive growth process,” says Allan Friedman, research director of the Center for Technology Innovation at Washington’s Brookings Institution.

Asked how this process could end up with Merkel’s cell phone being “tasked,” Mr. Friedman says, “The prevailing thinking is, ‘We got that much [information] this year, what can we do to get more next year?’ ”

That “thinking” stood out in a classified NSA memo provided to The Guardian newspaper by NSA leaker Edward Snowden, in which the agency asked officials in its “customer” departments – the White House, State Department, Pentagon, and others – to make their “Rolodexes” available to the intelligence agency.

“Such ‘Rolodexes’ may contain contact information for foreign political or military leaders, to include direct line, fax, residence and cellular numbers,” the memo said.  To convince officials of the usefulness of such an exercise, the memo cited the example of one official who turned over a trove of previously uncollected phone numbers.

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