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New Spy Game: All Eyes on Allies

French flap highlights that economic targets are now focus of much intelligence gathering

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THE United States Embassy in Canada's capital, Ottawa, has some suspicious air vents and heat pumps on its roof. Maybe they're really part of the aging building's air system. But it's more likely that they hide antennas used to eavesdrop on Canadian government officials, claims a former Canadian spy.

Not that turnabout isn't fair play. In 1982, intelligence obtained by eavesdropping on the US ambassador helped Canada beat the US to a $2.5 billion wheat sale to China, according to the new memoirs of Mike Frost, ex-agent for Canada's Communications Security Establishment.

In the great game of international espionage, as this exchange shows, friendship can be relative. Western allies have long spied on each other for their own purposes, even as they shared secrets on other matters and worked toward such common goals as containing communism.

Thus recent charges of CIA work in France do not surprise experts. With the former Soviet Union no longer a target of overwhelming importance, spying among comrades might even be on the upswing. ''We have to be prepared to return to the kind of relationships intelligence services had before the cold war, when allies themselves had very complex relations,'' says Roy Godson, head of the National Strategy Information Center and a leading Washington intelligence analyst.

The Franco-American spy flap began waving last week, with a leaked report in the newspaper Le Monde that five Americans had been asked to leave France for allegedly spying on behalf of US intelligence.

The French government positions in trade talks and telecommunications policy were reportedly the primary American targets. Over the weekend, French and US officials played down the issue.

Given the nature of espionage, where enormous effort is expended to hide mysteries inside enigmas, it is unlikely that the full story of the incident will be known for years. Many in the US charge that the disclosure of the allegations was a domestic political move on the part of French Premier Edouard Balladur, meant to distract attention from troubles in his campaign for president.

''The essential point is the utter pettiness of the affair,'' says Angelo Codevilla, a Hoover Institution scholar and former Congressional intelligence-committee staff member.

Spying on friends common

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