American myopia: spying on allies

An editorial in the Washington Post says: In response to the serial revelations of National Security Agency (NSA) 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 e-mails and text messages of Ms. Rousseff and her top aides, as well as Mexican President Enrique Peña 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 Ms. 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 e-mail 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 Ms. 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 Mr. Peña Nieto an investigation into the spying and told French President François 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.

The core issue here is not about surveillance practices per se but rather the mentality that has facilitated those practices. America continues to strut around the globe with a sense of impunity — with the attitude that its unchallenged power insulates it from any lasting harm that might be caused by offending others. In other words, the American mindset has long been and continues to be: we can get away with anything.

The U.S. can launch preemptive preventive wars, conduct extrajudicial killings, engage in kidnapping, operate secret prisons, use torture, disregard basic human rights, and spy on the rest of the world, all without constraint. Were any other country to conduct itself in the same way, it would be branded by the U.S. government as a rogue state and face all kinds of threats and sanctions. But America defines itself as exceptional.

To the extent that this grandiosity once had an objective basis, this is now rapidly evaporating. The assumption that our allies need us more than we need them will eventually no longer hold. Indeed, in many ways it does not hold now.

New regulations that could soon be approved by the European Union will force companies such as Google to seek the authorization of European data protection authorities before complying with NSA data requests on European citizens. Any company failing to comply with these regulations could face fines of 5% of global revenue. That means, based on its current revenues, Google could get fined $2-3 billion for an infraction.

The U.S. government and U.S. companies will no doubt continue to fight against the imposition of these regulations, but as much as Americans may be in the habit of scoffing at European power, the fact is America is only two-thirds the size of the EU. The megalomania of NSA chief Keith Alexander notwithstanding, the interests of 500 million people can no longer be trampled on so easily in the name of America’s national security interests.

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One thought on “American myopia: spying on allies

  1. Steven J. Willett

    You misuse the word “preemptive” in this sentence: “The U.S. can launch preemptive wars, conduct extrajudicial killings, engage in kidnapping, operate secret prisons, use torture, disregard basic human rights, and spy on the rest of the world, all without constraint.”

    There is a clear difference between ‘preventive’ and ‘preemptive.’ Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were illegal ‘preventive’ wars, which Justice Jackson called the “supreme international crime” during the Nuremburg Tribunals. Here’s quote on preemptive war from the Wikipedia article to contemplate:

    In 1842, U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster said that the necessity for forcible reaction must be “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation”. This formulation is part of the Caroline test, which “is broadly cited as enshrining the appropriate customary law standard.

    The US has not fought a preemptive war since the end of WW II.

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