On June 23rd, WikiLeaks unveiled a number of documents from the National Security Agency’s “Espionnage Elysée” program, that demonstrated the NSA’s targeted espionage against high level French government officials, including ministers and three presidents of the French Republic. This espionage against U.S. allies is tactless and is likely to fray relations with U.S. allies and must be reformed.

This event has proven to be all too similar to revelations on the NSA’s spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel for all the wrong reasons. In both cases, the NSA targeted the few individuals likely to condemn surveillance should they be targeted: heads of state and the highest levels of government.


Just after Edward Snowden began releasing documents on the NSA’s program, Chancellor Merkel praised the U.S. for being the “truest ally throughout the decades,” until it was revealed that Merkel herself was targeted. Soon afterwards, she compared the NSA to Stasi, the Soviet Union’s intelligence agency in East Germany.

Revelations on the NSA’s targeting of President Francois Hollande, and his predecessors, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, have similarly led to Hollande’s emergency meeting with France’s defense council on the 24th. The only targeted head of state that has backed away from condemning U.S. espionage, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, has done so only in a state of political weakness with Brazil’s corruption scandal, and unsurprisingly following Brazilian legislation directly targeting the NSA’s internet data collection.

According to the documents leaked, this spying has already been a previously noted “sticking point” in other negotiations as early as March 2010, when then French President Sarkozy was negotiating a bilateral intelligence agreement with the U.S. The documents were also said to have revealed few useful state secrets aside from the U.S.’s own intelligence mishap. Subjects discussed were hardly national security matters—they included France’s concerns with Greece in the Eurozone crisis, a UN Secretary General appointment, UN resolutions on Palestinian statehood, and ironically, French complaints of NSA spying.

The Foreign Policy magazine has noted that in spite of the USA Freedom Act, Washington has failed to publicly mention any changes to espionage practices against foreign allies. Most U.S. statements have only been statements of denial, as in both Germany and now France. Such statements will prove to be counterproductive as the NSA continues to throw away its credibility with media reports continually contradicting its narrative.

""This sort of espionage is just as counterproductive as denials of its existence. While the briefings may provide a modicum of context on the allies’ diplomatic positions, this context is wiped away as soon as the spying activities are revealed. The intrusion on the domestic political sphere of our allies will serve only to rattle our relations with them.

In a world where the power of the US is declining relative to the much faster growth of other developing nations, the credibility of relationships between the US and its allies is critical to the power hegemony our country holds as a moral force. But without some semblance of transparency and Wilsonian trust between our countries, we cannot hope to hold onto the power of goodwill from our allies.

Even if some additional context is provided for our allies’ diplomatic positions by these intelligence reports, the costs are likely to outweigh the benefits so long as the NSA brazenly fails to address our allies’ concerns. And though espionage against foreign citizens may be necessary, restraint placed on espionage against allied heads of state could have greatly reduced the outrage by politicians and media organizations given the patterns reactions of Brazil, Germany, and now France.

It is not in our interest to make enemies from friends and give political cannon fodder to our enemies through these spying programs. It’s time the NSA acknowledged that the opinions our allies’ leaders matter, for should they turn sour in our time of need, our challenges might become all too dire for any backstabbing realpolitik espionage program to remedy."

Doanvo is research assistant for the Global Initiative for Civil Society and Conflict.