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Newsline: When Countries Spy on Diplomats

The ongoing investigation into the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul earlier this month places a renewed focus on espionage between countries. Turkish intelligence officials told The Washington Post earlier this month that recordings from inside the consulate show Saudi operatives detained the dissident Saudi journalist on Oct. 2, killed him and dismembered his body. Those officials are wary of releasing the recordings for fear of revealing too much about their intelligence-gathering operations. CIA Director Gina Haspel reportedly heard the recordings on a trip to Turkey this week. But the investigation into Khashoggi’s death is hardly the first widely reported instance of countries spying on each other, even among allies. Such practice is a reality and in many cases, experts say, a necessity. “If you want to survive, you’re going to take advantage of the kind of intelligence target that embassies are. It would be dumb not to,” says Vince Houghton, historian and curator with the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. “Any country that is ignoring the potential intelligence information coming out of embassies is doing so at their own peril.” The documented history of spying on embassies and diplomatic functionaries is almost as old as diplomacy itself, and the motivations are varied. Sometimes a country may spy on its enemies or rivals to better understand how to defeat them. Allies may also spy on one another to learn more about their motivations or gain an advantage amid friendly negotiations. Embassies are natural targets for any country’s intelligence operations, Houghton says. Officials and ambassadors inside are generally discussing their host country and policies affecting it, frequently in conversations with top decision-makers back home. Intelligence agents often pose as diplomats with a cover job at the facility to mask their operations, so attempting to learn more about their activities provides not only a way to conduct counter-intelligence, but also potentially to recruit them as double agents. “Embassies are too important an intelligence target to ignore,” Houghton says. “There is no country, certainly no one that matters a whole lot, that can with a straight face say that this is not something that someone should be doing.”