Recent revelations about the activities of the US National Security Agency have provoked a lot of questions: one of the most common is, why would the US spy on the commercial interests of its major western allies? The simple answer is, because it can.
The US intelligence system displays a dangerous combination of almost unlimited capability with almost total impunity. It’s an extreme case of the malaise that afflicts the US system as a whole. It’s a massive, complicated, fractured, incoherent system that is autistic in its exclusive focus on itself. It’s so busy with its turf wars, its political infighting and its budgetary battles, that the outside world, and especially the world outside the United States, might as well not exist.
In the US system, there are effectively no penalties for annoying foreigners, unless, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, they have purchased part of the system itself. Stealing your allies’ commercial secrets may not be the smartest thing to do, but that’s a State Department problem. And in the end if the Germans or the Japanese don’t like you spying on them, what are they actually going to do about it?
Governments run on information, and more information is better than less information. So if you could find out lots of things that would give you a political and financial advantage over other countries in the world, with effectively no penalties if you were discovered, wouldn’t you want to do it?