U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was irate after a Pennsylvania grand jury indicted five Chinese army officers with cyberspying for hacking into the computers of six American nuclear, steel and clean-energy companies.
Talk about a double standard, though, not surprisingly, the Americans do not see it this way. According to White House press secretary Jay Carney, comparable U.S. "intelligence programs serve a specific national-security mission," rather than trying to ruin private foreign businesses as the Chinese are alleged to have done. Meanwhile, officials for the Chinese government have called the charges "extremely absurd."
It is all part of the spy vs. spy game both countries are involved in.
Almost a year ago, leaked information by Edward Snowden, the former U.S. National Security Agency contractor, exposed that the NSA was conducting cyber-espionage on the computers of Chinese businesses with direct ties to the government -- for which American officials were unrepentant.
This was merely one aspect of the NSA's global surveillance system entailing the hacking of emails and cellphones, creating fake Internet sites and tracking the computer activity of America's friends, enemies and even its own citizens. Implicated in Snowden's files as well was Communications Security Establishment Canada, the Canadian national cryptologic agency, among other co-operating western spy agencies. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose cellphone had been hacked, denounced the espionage stating that "spying among friends" was "unacceptable."
Merkel's anger was understandable; the Americans are Germany's allies. But she also was ignoring more than 1,000 years of espionage history. The tools may be a lot more sophisticated today; nonetheless, the strategy of surreptitiously spying on enemies and friends is ageless.
Long ago, Sun Tzu, the Chinese military strategist included in his treatise The Art of War a chapter devoted to "The Use of Spies and the Use of Intelligence."
"What enables an intelligent government and a wise military leadership to overcome others and achieve extraordinary accomplishments is foreknowledge," he argued. "So only a brilliant ruler or a wise general who can use the highly intelligent for espionage is sure of great success."
As Anthony Zurcher of the BBC recently pointed out, historical evidence of spy networks goes back to ancient Rome and was prevalent throughout European history. It was how in 1586 Mary, Queen of Scots, was ensnared in a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I of England and replace her on the throne.
Under Maximilien de Robespierre's Reign of Terror during the French Revolution in the early 1790s, "committees of surveillance," were authorized, "to identify, monitor and arrest any suspicious former nobles, foreigners, nationals who had recently returned from abroad, suspended public officials and many more," writes Zurcher.
Canada was not immune to spying or being spied upon. Most famously in late 1945, classified documents Igor Gouzenko, a young Russian cipher clerk, snuck out of the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa revealed that the Soviet Union, Canada's Second World War ally, had been operating an espionage ring.
In its day, the story of Gouzenko's defection and disclosures were as big a news story as the Snowden revelations. Much to the astonishment of then-prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, the Soviets -- who were desperate for information about the U.S. atomic bomb that had been used to end the war with Japan -- had recruited a collection of more than a dozen Canadian-based civil servants, secretaries, research scientists and Fred Rose, a communist MP, who all had allegedly willingly participated in the clandestine operation.
The Gouzenko affair helped trigger the Cold War as well as the Red Scare and McCarthyism in the U.S., and an even greater fear of communism in the West. It also showed that long before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the RCMP, FBI and other western law enforcement agencies were prepared to flout the letter of the law and ignore constitutional rights to flush out potential spies.
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin quite predictably denied any culpability in a spying ring, just as the Americans and the Chinese have done. However, unlike today's leaders, Mackenzie King still believed he could win over the Soviet dictator and wrote a contrite letter to him explaining that despite the press reports, Canada was still "interested in maintaining cordiality and friendship with the Soviet Union." Stalin never replied to him.
Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.