NSA disclosures put U.S. on defense

Politico reports: The NSA spying controversy is quickly transforming from a domestic headache for the Obama administration into a global public relations fiasco for the United States government.

After months of public and congressional debate over the National Security Agency’s collection of details on U.S. telephone calls, a series of reports about alleged spying on foreign countries and their leaders has unleashed an angry global reaction that appears likely to swamp the debate about gathering of metadata within American borders.

While prospects for a legislative or judicial curtailment of the U.S. call-tracking program are doubtful, damage from public revelations about NSA’s global surveillance is already evident and seems to be growing.

Citing the snooping disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, Brazil’s president canceled a state visit to the U.S. set for this week. Leaders in France and Italy and Germany have lodged heated protests with Washington, with the Germans announcing plans to dispatch a delegation to Washington to discuss the issue. Boeing airplane sales are in jeopardy. And the European Union is threatening to slap restrictions on U.S. technology firms that profit from tens of millions of users on the Continent.

“Europe is talking about this. Some people in Europe are upset and may take steps to block us,” former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) said in a telephone interview from Rome on Friday. “The reaction of retail politicians is to mirror the upset of the people who elected them.”

“Confidence between countries and confidence between governments are important and sometime decisive and there’s almost no confidence between the United States of America and Europe” now, former German intelligence chief Hansjörg Geiger said. “I’m quite convinced there will be an impact…. It will be a real impact and not only the [intelligence] services will have some turbulence.”

Some analysts see immediate trouble for U.S.-European arrangements to share information about airline passengers, financial transactions and more.

“The bigger problems are not in Berlin or Paris, but in the future out of Brussels,” said Michael Leiter, former head of the National Counterterrorism Center. “At the EU, I expect them to be very, very resistant to any increase — and to have problems even with maintenance — of some of the information sharing we have now…..All of this complicates those discussions exponentially.”

For the average person, American or from elsewhere, the knowledge that their own communications are subject to NSA surveillance is likely to be a matter of relatively little concern. Even if they vehimently object to such collection as a matter of principle, they also are likely to feel reasonably confident that for all intents and purposes, this data gets lost almost as rapidly as it gets collected. It instantly becomes buried in vast databases where it will almost certainly never receive further scrutiny. Not only is the collection process unjustifiably intrusive, but it also seems grossly wasteful.

In response to this week’s revelations, Glenn Greenwald wrote:

[N]ote how leaders such as Chancellor Angela Merkel reacted with basic indifference when it was revealed months ago that the NSA was bulk-spying on all German citizens, but suddenly found her indignation only when it turned out that she personally was also targeted. That reaction gives potent insight into the true mindset of many western leaders.

No doubt our political leaders are guilty of all kinds of hypocrisy, but in this case, surveillance of heads of state can hardly be put on a par with surveillance of ordinary citizens.

When the NSA was monitoring Merkel’s communications, it’s reasonable to assume that the monitoring went far beyond recording. They were not getting tossed into a database where they might reside until the day there was some justification to examine them. Much more likely, they were subject to daily analysis.

The NSA might be listening to everyone, but it focuses its attention on far fewer, including as we now know, some of America’s closest allies.

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