Economic spying not new, and China is not alone

“If we spy for military security, why shouldn’t we spy for economic security?”

Those were the words not of a Chinese spy but none other than Stansfield Turner, the Carter-era CIA director, who in 1992 argued that the United States should more aggressively carry out intelligence operations aimed at securing America’s leading economic position in the world.

If it weren’t for matters of patriotism, the former CIA director probably wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at allegations of Chinese spying unveiled by a Pennsylvania grand jury and the Department of Justice last week.

Indeed, the tactics the Obama administration has accused China of using have also been debated at the highest levels of the U.S. government as possible instruments of American power. Other countries haven’t been so gun shy and have carried out operations strikingly similar to those Chinese spies are accused of carrying out.

In the 1970s and 1980s, French agents planted moles inside IBM and Texas Instruments and forwarded the material they collected to a French computer company. Microphones planted in the seats of Air France to pick up talk among traveling businessmen have become a piece of intelligence lore.

The French, it seems, think Americans should feel flattered at the attention. “In economics, we are competitors, not allies,” Pierre Marion, the former French intelligence boss, once said. “America has the most technical information of relevance. It is easily accessible. So naturally your country will receive the most attention from the intelligence services.”

But even if there is scant evidence of American companies spying on behalf of, say, General Motors, U.S. spies have certainly embraced the notion of economic espionage that Robert Gates, then the director of the CIA, laid out in the early 1990s. In 1995, for example, The New York Times revealed that U.S. agents aggressively spied on Japanese officials engaged in trade negotiations with the United States.

More recently, documents released by Edward Snowden showed that U.S. agents spied on the Brazilian oil giant Petrobras.

This turn toward espionage and companies and strategic industries is of a part with the changes visited upon the American intelligence community following the fall of the Soviet Union, when the CIA went through something of an existential crisis. With its main adversary now defeated, what would be the purpose of the agency and against whom would it fight? In the go-go days of the early 1990s, before the emergence of a new terrorist threat, the agency alighted upon economic competitors as its new focus.

In 1992 Gates, observed the “increased importance of international economic affairs as an intelligence issue.” The agency had been forced to adjust accordingly.

But the agency, he emphasized, would not engage in commercial spying – that is, passing on helpful information to U.S. companies. A 2007 CIA paper documented the tortured debate over whether the United States should spy on behalf of its corporations. The problems, the paper concludes, are myriad, and a decision to engage in corporate espionage could spur international conflict. Moreover, the paper argues, the benefits of corporate espionage are difficult to calculate and impossible to evaluate against the costs.

The Chinese, like the French, have made a different calculation.