from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
April 17, 2001


Is it possible that espionage could be restricted by international agreement? Remarkably, the answer is yes. The proof of principle lies in the fact that the United States and its allies Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom have committed not to engage in espionage against one another.

Now that international relations are being roiled by intelligence activities such as the alleged espionage by FBI agent Robert Hanssen and the contested U.S. surveillance flights off the coast of China, some are starting to ask whether the time has come to establish new rules of the road for intelligence collection.

This is not, of course, a new question. In 1960, in the aftermath of the U-2 affair, President Eisenhower declared: "I have come to Paris to seek agreements with the Soviet Union which would eliminate the necessity for all forms of espionage, including overflights." (Quoted in M. Beschloss, Mayday, p. 286.)

The issue is complicated by the fact that not all types of intelligence collection are equally disruptive. To the contrary, some are positively beneficial insofar as they help to promote international stability, verify arms control agreements, etc. (For this reason, among others, President Eisenhower's proposal was quickly abandoned.)

Efforts to negotiate limits on intelligence collection might prove politically difficult, since many people have a vested interest -- financial, professional or sentimental -- in preserving the existing intelligence bureaucracy. Any limits that were agreed upon might also be difficult to verify in practice.

"Obviously, no one is going to renounce spying unilaterally," wrote former Soviet foreign minister Boris Pankin in Moscow Times last week. "And they are right not to. Just as was the case with nuclear weapons, moving away from espionage requires multilateral agreements and mutual concessions.... Perhaps the place to start would be a ban on recruiting foreign nationals."

Mr. Pankin's April 12 commentary, entitled "An Espionage Treaty," is posted here:

Likewise, in 1996, former U.S. Ambassador Robert E. White suggested a pilot program to test alternatives to espionage in selected regions of the world.

He proposed "pacts of reciprocal restraint by which signatories agree not to spy on or engage in covert action against the other. In order to be eligible to sign such a pact with the United States, the other nation would have to meet minimal standards of openness."

See Amb. White's February 7, 1996 Washington Post op-ed entitled "Call Off the Spies" here:


Like other foreign intelligence organizations, Israel's Mossad is gradually being compelled by the exigencies of the marketplace and the global media environment to surrender some of its traditional secrecy.

Not long ago, the very name of the Mossad's director was considered a state secret. "Even the son of the head of the Mossad did not know that he was the son of the head of the Mossad," began a memorable 1992 short story, "Ha-Ben shel Rosh ha-Mossad," by the young Israeli writer Etgar Karet.

Nowadays, however, the Mossad is placing want ads in the press, following the example of the CIA, MI5 and others. Last weekend the Israeli government announced -- on its Hebrew web pages, not the English counterparts -- a new advertising campaign on behalf of the Mossad's technology unit.

"This is the first time that the Mossad has acknowledged its technology unit, which has functioned for thirty years now," according to a statement of the Prime Minister's spokesman.

The technology unit "works in conjunction with Mossad operational personnel. Its purpose is to develop advanced technological methods to improve the operational capability of the Mossad and to meet its technological needs," the April 14 statement said.

The new Mossad ad, seeking suitable electronics engineers and computer scientists (Israeli citizens only), is posted here:


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