PARIS -- Last week, the citizens of the United Kingdom decided by majority vote to pull out of the European Union. One thing that voters probably didn't consider was that world governing bodies such as the EU are rampant with espionage.
Global governance institutions act as permanent installations in and around which intelligence officers can intermingle with their counterparts from other countries -- identifying, recruiting and cultivating sources and assets in order to discreetly collect information or influence policy, all while enjoying the diplomatic immunity that prevents them from suffering any serious consequences if they are caught.
This partly explains why the European Commission's diplomatic corps isn't limited to European countries and also includes accredited missions of the African Union, the General Delegation of Palestine, the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia,Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates), Hong Kong, the International Monetary Fund, the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the United Nations, the World Bank and others.
Basically, intelligence officers from around the world gather in Brussels under the guise of European solidarity, all while competing for potentially valuable information. The show that European citizens see on television, with members of European Parliament squawking at one another in a near-empty hall, represents only the noisy splashing on the surface of much deeper waters.
In 2014, the online publication The Intercept revealed that the British electronic intelligence agency GCHQ used malware to gain access to Belgian telecom operator Belgacom, which serves the European Commission, European Parliament and European Council.
Members of the "Five Eyes" -- the intelligence alliance of the U.S., Canada, U.K, Australia and New Zealand -- are obligated to share intelligence with the other members. Even though the U.K. is the only member of the Five Eyes based in Europe, the information that the GCHQ obtained on the EU was surely shared with American intelligence agencies.
You might wonder, "Why would the United States or Canada care to spy on European nations? Aren't they supposed to be allies?" It's not a matter of xenophobia. It has more to do with a perceived discrepancy in values.
Here in France, for example, the sort of shady political practices that allow for blind eyes to be turned when envelopes full of cash are passed under the table wouldn't fly in English-speaking countries. The kind of transparency that exists in Canada, where even the detailed lunch expenses of elected officials are published online, is unheard of in France and most other EU nations.
Economic espionage by the GCHQ and its allies is seen as unethical by some, including former NSA contractor and CIA employee Edward Snowden, but top-ranking officials believe it to be necessary. Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey explained the rationale for such information-gathering in a piece he wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 2000 titled, "Why We Spy on Our Allies."
"That's right, my continental friends, we have spied on you because you bribe," Mr. Woolsey wrote. "Your companies' products are often more costly, less technically advanced or both, than your American competitors'. As a result you bribe a lot. So complicit are your governments that in several European countries bribes still are tax-deductible."
In the 1990s, the U.S. collected such information through the National Security Agency in order to expose bribery by French industrials and scuttle contract bids. Today, the U.K.'s Serious Fraud Office is investigating France-based Airbus over allegations of corruption.
Modern warfare is largely economic in nature. Take, for example, the competition between Boeing and Airbus to sell jets to Iran. At first it looked as if Airbus was winning that battle, but then a $27 billion provisional deal between Iran and Airbus hit a snag. Airbus is required to obtain U.S. export licenses since more than 10 percent of the parts on the Airbus jets involved in the deal come from the United States. In the meantime, Boeing has announced its own deal with Iran for 100 airliners, and Iran's longtime pal, Russia, has unveiled a new passenger jet that rivals Boeing and Airbus jets.
The U.S. has a vested interest in the success of Boeing, the country's largest manufacturing exporter, and if America can stick a spoke in the wheel of other nation-state competitors to help one of its own, so much the better. That's the game being played among allies in places like Brussels.
Now that the only European member of the Five Eyes has pulled out of the EU, the U.S. is in danger of losing a critical monitoring channel.