Here are some reasons:
National security. U.S. intel agencies acutely focus on foreign companies, especially defense, technology and telecommunications firms, to gauge what kind of threat they might pose to U.S. interests. That includes finding out what kind of products they are developing, who they’re selling them to and what kind of strategic plans they have. This is particularly the case with weapons manufacturers and those making dual-use products that can be used to build nuclear weapons programs. It’s also done when such companies, like China’s telecommunications firm Huawei, seek to buy U.S. companies. The information is used to help the Commerce Department and secretive Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States assess whether or not the U.S. should object to such sales as being against U.S. national security interests.
Competition. Sometimes the U.S. spies on foreign companies to see what they’ve been getting via industrial espionage, either from their own efforts or from state-run intelligence-gathering. Efforts to uncover what Chinese firms have been getting is a full-time job in and of itself. A year after the 1996 Economic Espionage Act was passed, U.S. authorities had already estimated that intellectual property theft was costing U.S. firms $300 billion. Coincidentally, the same number was used earlier this year by the Commission on the Theft of International Property. U.S. intel officials say at least 23 countries actively target U.S. companies. Besides China, France has long been one of the worst offenders, for years targeting dozens of big U.S. corporations, and placing intel agents in “deep cover” as corporate officials without revealing their true allegiance. U.S. spying, in turn, has been used to root out such people and to do damage control in each of those countries. (Sometimes those efforts backfired, such as in the mid-1990s when U.S. intelligence agents were expelled from France and from Germany, prompting at least a temporary scale-back in U.S. commercial espionage efforts overseas).
Trade. Increasingly, U.S. industrial espionage operations also provide Washington with key information about the capabilities and plans of foreign multinationals to be used in trade negotiations. The information isn’t shared with the U.S. corporations (not as a matter of policy, anyway). But it is used, at least indirectly, to inform the negotiations, and give the U.S. leverage based on having knowledge of what kind of bargaining position the other country is in, former intel officials told Quartz.
Anti-corruption. Intel officials, including former CIA director R. James Woolsey, say the U.S. and its allies spy on foreign companies to gather evidence used to prosecute foreigners for flouting the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and gaining an unfair advantage over their U.S. competitors. Back in 2000, Woolsey told reporters that the U.S. spied on European companies Thomson-CSF (now Thales Group) and Airbus to see if they, respectively, had been paying bribes to the Brazilian and Saudi governments. “That’s right, my continental friends,” Woolsey said, “we have spied on you because you bribe.” The information is also given to the Departments of State and Commerce so they can confront the other countries to take corrective action.