Recently, I've read about the NSA (the US National Security Agency) spying on European leaders - Angela Merkel in particular.

But this is highly unusual for me. I can understand the US spying on its opponents. But European countries are the US's closest allies.

Why does the NSA need this?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – JJJ
    Commented Jun 1, 2021 at 17:28
  • To clarify the question then you most likely read about the 2015 spying that Obama stopped when it got known in public. (I do know you read about it here in 2021 because of further revelations) Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 9:10
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    I think the word 'need' is not suitable here. The US wants to have the information gathered this way and they believe the negative consequences if caught are smaller than the benefits they gain. So they do it.
    – quarague
    Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 9:16
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    Frankly a better question would have been: why did Denmark "need" to spy on Germany, France etc.? I guess this can't really be answered without some speculation Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 10:13
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    How does the US know who it’s allies are without spying on them?
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 17:04

10 Answers 10


Everyone realistically spies on everyone else. The US spies on Germany, Germany spies on the US, every marginally powerful country spies on every other marginally powerful country.

The fact that two countries are allies merely indicates that most of the time their interests align. But that doesn't mean that their interests always align. To take one current example, the United States strongly opposes the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would deliver Russian natural gas to Germany. Germany supports the pipeline. If a spy could gather inside information about what Merkel is really thinking, which concerns were most politically important for her, and what she might be willing to accept in trade, that would be very valuable information for the United States to have in ongoing talks. Just as in any negotiation, if you can get inside information about your opponent's position, you can generally strike a more favorable deal.

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    This is somewhat true, but the US seems to just a lot more active at it than anyone else, so saying everyone does it is not the whole story. Commented Jun 1, 2021 at 7:16
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica - Sure. I don't see the question as asking about the degree of spying so much as the kind of spying. The US is the sole superpower, tends to be involved in geopolitics pretty much everywhere, and spends more on the military than anyone else so it naturally has a larger spying program. Of course, there is an awful lot of cooperation in spying-- i.e. the five eyes en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_Eyes-- and a fair amount of the US infrastructure produces intel as much for allies as for the US. Commented Jun 1, 2021 at 7:22
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Are they more active or it's just they have more budget? The USA is the 1st world power, so I'd expect its intelligence activities being far more powerful than anyone else's, just like its army it's bigger and receives a lot more money than anyone else's.
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Jun 1, 2021 at 8:34
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    @MartinSchröder - Sure, the Five Eyes have a "no spy agreement". But when they outsource surveillance to each other, that's a pretty flimsy agreement. The US agrees not to spy on the UK but the UK asks the NSA to spy on UK citizens that wouldn't be allowed by UK domestic laws (and vice versa). And that dragnet happens to catch government officials. Technically I suppose you can argue that the US isn't spying on the UK, it just happens to get a lot of communications between UK ministers and whatnot that looks indistinguishable from spying. Commented Jun 1, 2021 at 14:33
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    @d-b - Just taking your first example because it's first and I'm too lazy to go research every combination, here's a news article from 2015 on a dust-up because Germany was caught spying on France. france24.com/en/… As the article mentions, that dust-up came shortly after it was revealed that Germany was spying on other allies. Commented Jun 1, 2021 at 22:04

Remember that there are degrees of "spying."

  • What just about everybody does is to have their ambassadors send back confidential evaluations of leaders and policies.
  • What many countries do is to have their diplomats talk to civil society in the host country, and to influence public debate.
  • Some countries have radio intercept stations on their soil. (Which includes Germany, by the way.) The modern expansion is listening to internet nodes which route foreign traffic.
  • Tapping phones within foreign countries is not something "everybody does," and if it happens diplomats are often expelled. Those who did it, or others as a token gesture.
  • Similar for bribing host nation nationals as informers.

I think there can be little doubt that the US is more active in spying -- on enemies, on supposedly neutral countries, on supposedly friendly countries -- than many others.

  • For better or worse, they are a global power. Latvia does not need to know what happens in New Guinea. Australia does, and so does the US. Australia does not need to know what happens in Belarus. Latvia does, and so does the US.
    (There was a comment on that: the US promised to defend the Baltic NATO members. They cannot keep that promise without information on the region.)
  • Within an alliance, they are often the key source of information about e.g. terrorist attacks. Just how much is unclear, we might never hear about prevented attacks.
    Once upon a time the US was called "leader of the free world." Some of that remains, even 30 years after the Cold War.
  • They can afford to do what other governments might wish to do if they could. The NSA budget is awesome compared to most of their foreign counterparts. I think that, combined with the global role, is the key.

Things get awkward when the US spies together with Germany on the traffic in the Frankfurt internet hubs, and then against Germany on the traffic on the Copenhagen hubs. Should Germany throw out NSA officals who have also visited Denmark, and let others in?

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    the US does not "need to know" what happens in Belarus. They want to know, which they equate with need for obvious political reasons.
    – user371366
    Commented Jun 1, 2021 at 23:59
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    The US absolutely does not need to know. It’s just they gave themselves the ‘world police’ job, which functions about as well as US domestic police when looking at the results. Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 2:32
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    @SebastiaanvandenBroek Yet, nature abhors a vacuum. Your 'police' metaphor is apt. If not the US, who? Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 3:37
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    @user371366, the US has a security treaty with the Baltic states. It promised to defend them. So it needs to know what happens there.
    – o.m.
    Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 4:19
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    @o.m. It could get that information by exchanging information with spy agencies in the region (such as Poland or the Baltic states), rather than by doing its own spying. And the question was about spying on its allies. The question isn't why the US is (presumably) spying on Belarus, but why it's spying on allies such as Germany or the baltic states.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 7:17

Sun-Tzu laid it out rather well.

Thus there are five types of spies to be employed: Local spies--employ people from the local district. Internal spies--employ their people who hold government positions. Double agents--employ the enemy's spies. Expendable [Dead] spies--are employed to spread disinformation outside the state. Provide our spies [with false information] and have them leak it to enemy agents. Living spies--return with their reports.

As for the armies you want to strike, the cities you want to attack, and the men you want to assassinate, you must first know the names of the defensive commander, his assistants, staff, door guards, and attendants. You must have our spies search out and learn them all.

(Art of War, Ralph D. Sawyer translation, chapter 13, Employing Spies)

Spying on allies serves many purposes:

  • Your ally may not be the true target. You may be targeting a third party, but spying on allied people and places as a way of getting to them.
  • Some spy-craft is rather mundane. Working as a diplomat in a consulate and sending home digests of newspaper headlines is "spying", but nothing like the movies. And this kind of intelligence is as useful as it is inoffensive to the host country.
  • Corroborating information is extremely valuable. If you are able to intercept the same information from an enemy and from an ally, and you are sure they are not echoes of the same original source, you can have much higher confidence in the information.
  • Currying favor with business leaders and politicians never hurt anybody. It's why we have ambassadors in the first place. So of course your ambassadors should do exactly that, as much as possible. And relationship-building is a form of spy-craft.
  • Allies who are neutral or friendly with countries hostile to us may have information about them that they keep in confidence, that we want.
  • As others have said, even allies disagree on some things, like trade issues, where having inside information can come in handy.
  • Sometimes internal political changes or external pressures cause allies to change posture. It would be nice to have advance warning of such things, so that we can prevent them or respond to them.
  • Ronald Reagan said, "Trust, but verify." He probably didn't mean it exactly this way, but it just makes good sense. No one wants to be surprised in matters of diplomacy or war any more than they can help.
  • And sometimes you have to lie to your friends to get what you want. As the saying goes, all is fair in love and war. And after all, they would do it to you.
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    Yup, the popular idiotic preconception, and nationalist mythologies talking about national actions as if they are taken by a completely unified and homogenous entity, often with heroic pathos and righteous indignation, is just so naive and propagandistic....
    – mishan
    Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 8:23
  • @mishan OP said nothing about any one country, and clearly lays out the benefits of spying on allies. Did you even read the answer? Almost all of this post could be applied to an individual in a tense business negotiation and be just as relevant.
    – TCooper
    Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 22:04
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    @TCooper I think you misunderstood my comment. I agree with what is written in the answer and make an observation about the idiocy of thinking about actions taken by nations as if they are taken by a monolithic entity with no possibility of somebody working towards something else than the official line given by the government....So,..yeah
    – mishan
    Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 22:30
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    @mishan clearly I misunderstood, my apologies. I still have no idea how that relates to this answer, but I'm making some sense of it now. I thought you were denouncing the answer as naive and propagandistic, saying it was an example of popular idiotic preconceptions, etc. +1/thanks for the explanation
    – TCooper
    Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 23:03
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    @TCooper I was reading the answers and this is one of the nuggets that got stuck in the steel trap of my mind while reading them. I just had the need to sit down and plop it somewhere :) I agree it could be misconstrued and evidently, the heat of the moment didn't help the clarity of the message. Don't mind it, sh*t happens.
    – mishan
    Commented Jun 5, 2021 at 0:29

Ever tried playing the game Diplomacy? A couple of games will quickly show that your so-called "closest allies" might not be your ally at all! Furthermore, if they are going to slide a dagger into your back, you had better know early because of the high stakes that are involved (it can threaten the very existence of your country).

Historical example: just before the start of World War 2, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a mutual non-aggression pact that further declared that "neither government would ally itself to or aid an enemy of the other". Two years after the pact was signed, Nazi Germany invaded. The Soviet Union was caught by surprise and almost destroyed. Beware.


Being allies does NOT mean friendliness or absolute trust

There is that old saying of "Trust, but verify" and it is pretty apt here.

U.S. is a superpower whether you or I like it or not. To keep that power, they (and anybody else with the power to do so like China, Russia, Germany, UK, SAR, Czech Republic, Sweden,...) are going to use their considerable political, economical, and other (military) capital and use it to further their own interest and their obligations. As long as the rewards for honoring those obligations outweigh the negative effects and the political decision not to honor them has not yet been made, of course (Winston Churchill and seizure of Turkish battleships Britain was building before WWI, anyone?)

It is extremely naive (and IMO idiotic) to think that relationships between countries (which are by definition groups of people with extremely diverse opinions and interests) are the same as between you and your best mate Benji. Another mistake is to equate information gathering and spying with terrorism/disruptive attacks.

In short, any country worth it's salt is going to gather as much information as possible in their political climate about anyone they can.

U.S. is going to gather information (spy) on anyone they work with and against because they need as much political advantage they can and because Germany might be their ally, but that does not mean they trust Germany or that Germany will be an ally forever and not everyone in Germany is an ally of U.S., same as everyone in U.S. is not an ally of Germany.

Germany at this time is run by a group of people who have not had a reason to sever that relationship, the same as U.S. is. Those people change and they have their own agendas that might go contrary to the interests of the people on the other side or even amongst their own country.

They agreed to cooperate/work towards similar goals as long as it is beneficial for both of them on areas where their interests align. That does NOT mean absolute trust, but more a grudging acceptance.

You cannot foster a relationship of absolute trust between groups of people who periodically change and have diverse and often contrary interests.

You can foster a business relationship, that can even be friendly, but certainly not complete trust.


Four reasons that I can think of...

  1. Trades. If you look up the 5 Eyes spying agreement you realize that when the spy agency of country A. spies on people in country B. it could actually be part of a trade of information between the countries where country B. requested country A. to do the spying to get around country B's own laws that were intended to prevent spy agencies from watching their own citizens.
  2. Enemies. Allies don't share 100% of the same political goals. What if your ally is in bed with one of your enemies in some way? You might worry that the relationship will grow or go in directions you don't want. The only way to get an early warning is to spy.
  3. Business. All (major) countries are trying to help their own corporations gain a competitive advantage and actively spy on leading companies to try and give their own companies some of that information. It would be easiest to learn about what another company knows by spying on the people in that country with the highest security clearance.
  4. Sport. Maybe spy agencies engage in some sort of competition where they flex their muscles. Spying on a friendly might be practice/training for spying on open enemies.
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    Perhaps "Training / Sport"? Do a cooperative exchange of sending newbies to spy in a friendly country. Both the newbies and the spy catchers get exercise, and when a newbie screws up and gets caught, the consequences are minor embarrassment rather than death, imprisonment, an international incident, etc. Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 20:48

The USSR and Germany were allies in 1939, had treaties in place about joint military operations, trade, etc., etc.

Yet two years later Germany invaded the USSR because (in part) of fears the USSR was going to invade Germany (fears that were probably well grounded, though the timing was off. German intelligence reports had identified a planned large scale exercise as preparations for an invasion, which it may have been as Soviet war plans tended to do exactly that, as was found out in the 1990s).

One reason for the Germans' problems during the Russian winter, ironically, was a lack of cold weather gear. Cold weather gear that had been on order from the USSR for delivery a few months after the start of Operation Barbarosa.

One reason for the initial failure of the Soviet forces against the German invasion was the fact that indicators of a German buildup had been ignored by the Soviet high command ("they're friends. They'd be daft to invade without cold weather gear, if at all").

It goes to show you need to watch your friends as they may not be as friendly as you think they are.

The same can be said in part about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. There were plenty of indications that the Japanese were preparing for war against the USA, but those were ignored in Washington. Those in charge there thinking the Japanese would be smart enough to know they couldn't win.

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    So the US needs to spy on Denmark and Germany because it realistically fears an attack from these allies? Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 7:27
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    @MartinSchröder The reasons for spying there are pretty much definitely economic and political.
    – mishan
    Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 8:20
  • What joint military operations? Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 9:36
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    @PeterMortensen Germany and the USSR had joint bases in the USSR for training among others tank and aircraft crew. This to hide the fact that Germany was rearming in excess of the post-WW1 restrictions on their armed forces. These were likely closed by 1941.
    – jwenting
    Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 10:31
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    @jwenting Nope. Just nope. The US still has ca. 40k troops in Germany. Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 15:04

The answer to the question "why does the NSA collect information" is "because it is their raison d'être. The agency has been conceived exactly for this purpose: Collect all available data.

  • @JJJ No, they were meant as two different answers: In-universe and out-universe, so to speak. The one that read "They don't" meant exactly and exclusively that: There is no objective need to spy on allies. The world in general and the U.S. in particular would work as well if the NSA didn't do that, and probably better because there is an indirect, late gratification for observing the rule of law, or what stands for it in international relations. This answer here, though, gives an in-universe answer: The NSA collects data the same way fish swim and I have sex. Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 13:15

In this particular instance, everything emanated from the 9/11 attacks on the World Trace Centre in the United States.

As we all know, the United States went on to invade both Iraq and Afghanistan. But while the US managed to get allies to attack Afghanistan with it, the Europeans – both the citizens and their governments – were vehemently opposed to an Iraq war that was rather clearly based on flimsical, made-up "evidence" and which was sure to both destabilize the region and fail to bring any improvement to the security of Western nations. (Not to mention the conditions of local civilians, which were sometimes shot up by private contractors.)

But then-president Bush jr. made a clear distinction that nations were either "with us, or against us", which of course meant that Europe was against the US. The German government therefore was not to be trusted and thus, the illegal phone-tapping began. The German government, for its part, was of course spying on the US. At the time, Germans didn't even know whether the US was going to use nuclear bombs in Afghanistan.

  • The US invasion of Afghanistan was motivated by the 9/11 attacks, but I don't think the invasion of Iraq had anything to do with it? Depending on whom you ask, that one was motivated by alleged WMDs, oil, or "Hussein is a bad guy", but I don't remember anyone claiming 9/11 had something to do with it (US anti-Iraq sanctions long predate the 9/11 attacks).
    – gerrit
    Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 13:22
  • @gerrit There weren't explicit claims to a link between September 11th and Iraq, but it was stated that Al-Qaeda and the Iraqi government were collaborating, and the "War on terror" was framed accordingly. See Shaping Public Opinion : The 9/11-Iraq Connection in the Bush Administration's Rhetoric .
    – Nimloth
    Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 17:42

Once upon a time the US forces in Iceland spied on the Icelanders. This took place during the negotiations for the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), an agreement which every nation with forces in another nation has (when the other nation agrees to this).

During negotiations, the Icelandic government representatives would have sidebar conversations with each other, in Icelandic. They could do this because almost no Americans can speak Icelandic.


During one round's negotiations, the American side brought along a young Air Force officer whose name escapes me (this was over 25 years ago). He was the son of a American civilian who had spent his working years as an administrator in the CB squadron (a Navy unit), stationed at NAS Keflavik in Iceland.

The Icelanders had no idea who he was, but when he began to translate what the Icelanders were saying to each other, they did at least understand why the Americans had brought him.

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    While am interesting anecdote, I don’t see how it answers the question
    – divibisan
    Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 23:00
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    -1 for the same reason as the comment above me, but also because this isn't even an example of spying (it's not spying if you are openly translating in front of them).
    – JBentley
    Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 12:08
  • It was spying. Not in the way that we think of when we hear the word, but it was spying nonetheless.
    – EvilSnack
    Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 22:44

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