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Economic Espionage?

Via Atrios, an NPR reporter catches former CIA director James Woolsey admitting that the agency conducts "economic espionage" from time to time. Now, it doesn't seem all that surprising that spy agencies would keep tabs on foreign companies and, if anything relevant comes up, share that information with the president. Maybe that's what Woolsey meant. But the prize-winning question is whether this information ever gets passed on to American corporations. Here's what Woolsey told Robert Dreyfuss back in 1994:

R. James Woolsey, President Clinton's CIA director, has said repeatedly that the CIA will not engage in corporate spy work. Targeting foreign companies and giving that information to American companies is "fraught with legal and foreign policy difficulties," Woolsey says. But there is not the slightest hesitation among other top CIA officials that such information, when obtained, ought to be shared with American automakers.

In Dreyfuss' story, "three separate U.S. officials" acknowledged that the CIA had provided the government with information about Japanese auto technology. That info, in turn, may or may not have been handed over to Chrysler, GM, and Ford. One top industry official bragged that he's seen "things" passed along by the "spook agencies," but waved off any further questions. Then, in 1999, a report from the European Parliament argued that the NSA was intercepting communications from companies such as Thomson and Airbus and sharing them with American corporations. I gather no one ever found out if it was true or not. So we're mostly dealing in speculation.

My hunch is that the CIA is less likely to try this stuff today than it was back in the 1990s, when agents didn't have to spend all their time setting up secret prisons and torturing detainees. And yes, this is a trivial issue when set beside those abuses, but I'd still be curious to know whether economic espionage occurs. Certainly it raises questions: If the government did decide to share corporate secrets with U.S. companies, who would they share it with? How would the lucky winners be chosen? And so on. Perhaps we'll never know.

--Bradford Plumer