In response to the serial revelations of National Security Agency spying against allied countries, the Obama administration offers two standard explanations. One is pragmatic: sweeping up phone records and other data in places such as France and Germany is an important counterterrorism operation that protects citizens of those nations as well as Americans. The other is tinged with cynicism: Many governments spy on one another, including on their friends, so no one should be shocked to learn that the United States does it as well.
These are reasonable answers, to a point. Germany and other European countries have been home to dangerous Islamist militants, including several perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. At least some of the spying on such targets is done in cooperation with European intelligence services. And France — which summoned the U.S. ambassador on Monday to express “shock” at the latest revelation of NSA data mining — is known to conduct similar operations, as well as industrial espionage sometimes aimed at U.S. targets.
There are, however, a couple of problems with the administration’s response. Some of the spying, revealed in leaks originating with NSA defector Edward Snowden, has targeted top political leaders and diplomats, including the last two presidents of Mexico, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and embassies and offices of the European Union. The NSA apparently scooped up emails and text messages of Rousseff and her top aides, as well as Mexican President Enrique Pea Nieto — something that cannot be explained away as counterterrorism.
The breezy U.S. response also overlooks the damage that revelations of spying are doing to important relationships. A furious Rousseff canceled a state visit to Washington last month and her government is now busy concocting ways to lessen U.S. leverage on the Internet, including a new encrypted email service. French protests may be hypocritical, but they could also lead to demands that anti-surveillance measures be included in a proposed transatlantic trade treaty. Already the European Parliament is considering legislation that would require technology firms such as Google to consult E.U. governments before complying with U.S. warrants seeking data.
There may be justification for some of this spying. Brazil, for example, has been a problematic partner in recent years, working at cross-purposes to U.S. policy on Iran and several Latin American countries. But the potential benefits of collecting intelligence on nominally friendly leaders has to be weighed against the potential blowback if the operations are exposed — which in the Internet era has become increasingly likely. It seems unlikely that anything gleaned from Rousseff’s e-mail is worth the trouble it has caused.
Without quite conceding this point, President Obama has been suggesting that U.S. surveillance practices may need adjustment. He promised Pea Nieto an investigation into the spying and told French President Franois Hollande in a phone call Monday that there were “legitimate questions for our friends and allies about how these capabilities are employed.” The review that’s underway surely will not lead to an end to foreign surveillance activity, nor should it. But better political controls are needed, along with an injection of common sense.