The drama of Edward Snowden’s exposure of wide-ranging National Security Agency (NSA) domestic spying has somewhat overshadowed the steady flow of somewhat lesser revelations derived from the massive cache of documents known as Wikileaks. The most recent news reports based on five Wikileaks documents, plus a list of targeted telephone numbers, detail how Washington spied on senior members of the Japanese government, as well as on banks and companies such as the major diversified conglomerates Mitsui and Mitsubishi, referred to as keiretsu.
According to the documents that were made public, 35 numbers were targeted specifically by the NSA for coverage between 2006 and 2009. The electronic intrusion permitted Washington to obtain information on trade talks, policies relating to energy and climate change, as well as secret briefings involving Japan’s then-prime minister that took place at his official residence.
As is often the case, the back story is more interesting than the exposure of the spying itself, as most of the world has by now concluded that the United States spies on everyone all the time and has become blasé when a new country is added to the list. In this instance, however, the documents revealed that NSA was sharing some of the information on Japan’s climate-change strategies with the British, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders, which make up the remainder of the “Five Eyes” group that is privy to the most sensitive signals-intelligence operations. The suggestion would be that all five nations were and still are interested in collecting at least some types of economic information through espionage—a risky proposition, as revelation of such activity could easily derail trade negotiations.
A second major issue relates to what one does with business-related information after it is collected. Obviously intelligence that relates to trade disputes would be of some value to the White House, but design or marketing plans that could provide a U.S. company with a competitive advantage when dealing with a Japanese firm raise serious ethical questions. The U.S. government does not pass on such information, at least in theory, because of the practical consideration that the American economy has multiple competing firms in most economic sectors, and it would create unfair advantage if the information were given only to one company. So no one gets it, though one has to suspect there might be an occasional midnight phone call that violates the rule.
Ironically, the Japanese work the other way. The government cooperates fully with its large industrial firms to give them every conceivable advantage, which includes industrial spying on their behalf run out of Japanese Embassies.
Finally, a risk versus gain assessment of the apparent value obtained from spying on Japan would quite likely determine that the effort has never been worth the potential damage to bilateral relations. It is as inexplicable as the rationales produced to justify the programs involving other friendly nations like Germany, France, and Brazil.
One has to suspect that NSA spying often occurs just because the resources are in place and have to be used for something. We Americans spy on everyone mostly because we can.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.