trust yourself: allies are not your friends or why CT cooperation is problematic

You got a lotta nerve/To say you are my friend/When I was down you just stood there grinning/You got a lotta nerve/To say you gotta helping hand to lend/You just want to be on the side that’s winning

Following the January 2015 attacks in Paris foreign ministers of the EU resolved to take action to: 1) improve the exchange of security information with partner countries, 2) reinforce cooperation with Arab and Mediterranean countries, and 3) increase efforts to deal with open conflicts and crises. “Improving the exchange of security information with partner countries” is laudable but more complicated than it might first appear.

This is illustrated in a recent interview in Le Monde which references the operation in Milan, Italy, to render Abu Omar, that points to a number of dilemmas in the oft referenced need for cooperation against terrorism. These are related to cooperation between entities of the same nature, i.e. between external intelligence services but also between entities who may have a counter-terrorism mission but are different in nature, i.e. between external intelligence services and security services or external intelligence services and the police.

The dilemma is based around the differing approach to their missions. Security services have traditionally existed to defend the sovereignty of the national territory while external intelligence services operate on foreign territory and may seek to ‘violate’ that sovereignty in pursuit of their goals. If cooperation is related to trust, how then are external services able to cooperate with security services without breaking this trust? With difficulty it seems. In the Abu Omar case, according to Le Monde, the US cooperated with an Italian service with an external mission (SISMI) but recruited a source in the police. In short, allies are not friends. If it concerns the security of the state, “there are no friends, it is necessary to distrust your friends as much as you enemies.” This point made by a former member of the DST, informed by their experience of the Cold War, might be thought to be something of an anachronism.


However, John Le Carre’s ‘A Most Wanted Man,’ provides some insight into why this still might be the case for terrorism, where global cooperation is the perceived panacea for ‘fighting’ terrorism. In the film, three intelligence entities, two German and one American, have an interest in a possible terrorist suspect, the ‘Most Wanted Man’ of the title. One of the German services wants to arrest him as soon as possible as they want to avoid an attack, the other service wants to run him to be able to gain information about another target, and the Americans are helping both German services but also have their own ambitions. While all three are supposedly cooperating, they are doing so, only in so far as it advances their own conflicting interests and priorities. Without giving away the ending, the film also suggests that allies are not your friends.

‘A Most Wanted Man’ might be a work of fiction, but the dilemmas it suggests about cooperation are real enough. Yves Bonnet, the former director of the French DST, in Contre-Espionnage, Mémoires d’un patron de la DST, lays out a number of principles for cooperation and the sharing of intelligence. These principles are related to the problems evoked in the Le Carre film as well as the Abu Omar rendition.

Bonnet argues for firstly, the respect for sovereignty, meaning that for cooperation occur, the authority of the security service over what occurs in its territory must be respected. Referring to the US, he states that if the CIA wants to work in France, the DST needs to know, what subject, why, and if possible, joint operations should be used to address the issue. Otherwise, he argues if the CIA is to act unilaterally, then their officers will be expelled.


Secondly, Bonnet refers to the ownership of intelligence. He refers to meaning of the ‘third party rule.’ When information is given to another service, the receiving service is not allowed to transfer that information to another intelligence entity without the prior permission of the originating entity. However, Bonnet goes on to state that the ownership of the information extends not only to onward transmission but also to what action can be taken based on the information. Generally, it cannot be used to initiate an operation against a target without the permission of the service who ‘owns’ the information. This is particularly important as it could compromise the source at the origin of the intelligence.

Thirdly, Bonnet argues that all intelligence must be verified. Verification comes from obtaining similar information from a different source. If the information is confirmed, then according to Bonnet, it becomes credible and thus exploitable. Underlying this seemingly obvious injunction, is the need to avoid acting on intelligence from a single source, even if it is a friendly service, to avoid being manipulated into a course of action that benefits the other service. Bonnet knows that the interests of each service differ due to the priorities of the state which they are intended to serve. In the case of Abu Omar, it seems some believed there was an active plot while the Italians are reported to have had no evidence of this.

Fourthly, Bonnet suggests that it is necessary for there to be a balance in the exchange between services. He argues that It is obvious that the service that cannot reciprocate in an exchange finds itself in a state of dependence and eventually becomes a ‘vassal’ of the other service. Bonnet indicates that for cooperation to occur over an extended period of time, this balance is necessary, without it, cooperation risks being short-lived or sporadic. This point has been addressed by Sims in an article detailing types of intelligence exchanges.

In the book Bonnet declares that the goal of French counter-terrorist activity at the time was – “non-violation of national territory” – whether by friends or enemies. French activity was to maintain the integrity of the national territory and no violence was permitted and if it were to occur, it would be dealt with by the French authorities. In terms of cooperating with other security or intelligence services the understanding was that France would assist others and would seek to dialogue with either those who are not yet friends or not yet enemies.

Bonnet’s view is that of a former head of an internal security agency as opposed to an external intelligence agency. The head of the later, would likely see the restriction on operating on another state’s territory without permission or prior notice as an obstacle to be overcome and less as an inviolable rule. The consequences of being caught balanced against the rewards of success. All of which suggests that even where states seek to cooperate with partners, the caveat that, “there are no friends, it is necessary to distrust your friends as much as you enemies” is not forgotten and the resolutions of the EU will be difficult to put into place and maintain over the long-term.