Matthew Aid, an intelligence historian and expert on the NSA, says: “I think most of us who have studied U.S. intelligence over the years naturally assume that there is no country on the face of the planet who does not receive some level of attention from the U.S. intelligence community. We have to because we are one of the few global superpowers left on the planet.”
Aid says this in conjunction with a hint of incredulity about the current expressions of shock and indignation being expressed by America’s allies who object to being spied upon.
While the expressions of shock coming from Europe and elsewhere may indeed be contrived, the indignation is not, and this distinction is one that many Americans fail to grasp.
Once again, American exceptionalism rears its ugly head and once again Americans fail to recognize its ugliness.
America has to spy on its allies. Why? Because the prevailing attitude in this country — the American outlook — is that on a fundamental level, American interests differ from the interests of everyone else on the planet.
This is a form of insanity, but insanity is difficult to recognize when it gets expressed collectively. When virtually everyone suffers from similar delusions, then crazy becomes normal.
In order to plausibly justify bugging the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel or that of any of the U.S.’s other close allies, one would have to show how the benefits of doing so, outweigh the potential costs. In reality, the benefits are negligible to non-existent while the costs may prove enormous.
The argument that “everyone does it” simply doesn’t wash. Who has bugged President Obama’s Blackberry?
Let’s suppose that France succeeded in doing so. What’s America’s response going to be? Fair game. Everyone does it. I don’t think so.
But returning to the idea that the diplomatic crisis in which the U.S. is now embroiled is symptomatic of an American disease, the primary symptom which finds countless expressions is the idea that “because we are Americans” is a coherent and rational explanation for anything.
The idea that Americans are in some way intrinsically different from everyone else is baseless yet functions as a presupposition guiding so many of America’s actions.
In an op-ed at USA Today, Lisa Monaco, President Obama’s assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism, notes that the administration is currently reviewing U.S. surveillance capabilities, including with respect to foreign partners. “We want to ensure we are collecting information because we need it and not just because we can.”
The New York Times reports that the tapping of Merkel’s phone began a decade ago but that during his five years as president, Obama had no knowledge of this.
The same report also says: “In Washington, the reaction [from Europe] has set off a debate over whether it is time to put the brakes on the NSA, whose capabilities, Mr. Obama has hinted, have expanded faster than its judgment.”
A much more pointed response is reported coming from Germany:
So fierce was the anger in Berlin over suspicions that American intelligence had tapped into Ms. Merkel’s cellphone that Elmar Brok of Germany, the chairman of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee and a pillar of trans-Atlantic exchanges since 1984, spoke Friday of America’s security establishment as a creepy “state within a state.”
To cast the issue as one of capabilities expanding faster than judgment is one of Washington’s habitual deflections. It presents an image of breathless officials struggling to keep pace with the advance of technology. Everyone’s innocent. Technology relentlessly improves and frail humans struggle to keep up.
But the real issue is not technological; it is political.
For the NSA to be spying on the German chancellor while the U.S. president knows nothing about it, shows that the NSA has become a rogue operation.
This has nothing to do with plausible deniability; it’s about inexcusable ignorance and lack of oversight.
The ultimate irony is this: America’s “need” to spy on the world is a byproduct of a lack of curiosity about the rest of the world. Americans fear what they don’t understand.
A world that Americans knew better, engaged with more fully, and which thereby ceased being imbued with a pervasive otherness, would be a less scary world. It would no longer be a world from which America feels the need to set itself apart.