The discovery that NATO’s top commander, Admiral James Stavridis had been the target of a fake Facebook profile certainly jolted the alliance.

For a military organization intent on keeping it secrets, it was a big embarrassment.

Mr. Stavridis’ fake profile was so professional and convincing that several defense officials signed on. They shared contacts and bantered.

NATO played down the entire incident. That’s the usual reaction whenever there are attempts to compromise the alliance’s security.

A spokesman said no classified information was exchanged.

“Military people know exactly what they can and cannot post on Facebook,” a NATO official said.

The Admiral Stavridis impostor has since been removed from Facebook. The authentic Admiral remains.  His “From the Bridge” is a big hit.

So there we are.

There was nothing to get worried about, the NATO official said, even though he acknowledged that it was not the first time that this had happened to important NATO personnel.  He declined to name names.

He said this latest attempt to penetrate NATO via Facebook was “a kind of spearfishing,”

I would call it espionage.

NATO officials say little about the origins of the breach. When you ask them if China might have been behind it, they neither confirm nor deny. “Its difficult to track down the source,” another NATO official said.

China would have every reason to try to make unofficial inroads into NATO, especially if it meant gleaning a bit of Admiral Stavridis’s strategic view of the world.

His job as America’s commander in Europe is a wide brief. His command stretches from the Continent across to Africa, where China is very active.

Moreover, with the United States, which after all leads NATO, increasingly preoccupied with the rise of China’s military, any insights about how NATO perceives China would be very useful to Beijing.

No matter which individual, or state-sponsored individuals faked Admiral Stavridis’s Facebook, it’s unlikely that the spearfishing will stop.

It is clear, too, that NATO cannot afford to stop working with social media. This is an organization that desperately needs to become more communicative to a wider audience.

NATO also increasingly relies on social media as a source of information, as was evidenced during NATO’s military campaign in Libya last year. Opposition forces regularly used Facebook to tell NATO about the whereabouts of troops loyal to the Gaddafi regime. 

No wonder that NATO was eager to defend Facebook in the aftermath of the Stavridis fake episode. It needs social media, with all its flaws. NATO somehow believes it can cope with impostors on Facebook.

Real cyber warfare is a different story.  It’s a big worry for the Alliance.

Remember how it was Russia, according to the Estonian government, which had hacked into Estonia’s security intelligence network in 2007. NATO sent experts to Estonia to help with the investigations.

Estonia had joined NATO in 2004 and so had access to intelligence data that would make rich pickings for cyber attackers.
Ever since, , cyber warfare is high on NATO’s agenda. But NATO cannot afford to ignore the traditional methods of espionage, either.

Take the case of Sandor Laborc, the chief of the Hungarian secret service who had spent six years at the KGB’s academy in Moscow during the 1980s.

Despite his background, there wasn’t an eyebrow raised when the former Hungarian socialist government, which had very close ties to the Kremlin, got Mr. Laborc appointed chairman of NATO’s intelligence committee in early 2008.

When I had asked NATO diplomats at the time about the appointment, they played down Mr Laborc’s past.  The next thing we knew, there was a new government in Budapest that had him arrested for allegedly spying on politicians.

In 2009, the traditional methods of espionage were in full swing in NATO. Two Russian diplomats were expelled over accusations of spying. One diplomat, Viktor N. Kochukov, was a member of the Russian delegation to NATO. The other, Vasily. V. Chizhov, was the son of Vladimir A. Chizhov, Russian ambassador to the European Union.  How many remain?

The consequence is that the big NATO countries are ever more cautious about sharing confidential information with their allies. But that attitude carries risks far beyond the scope of the Facebook episode. If allies don’t trust each other with their assessments of developments in the world, it will be ever more difficult for them to find enough common ground for action.