Revelations About NSA Surveillance Souring U.S. Relationships With Other Nations
Earlier this week, The Guardian published the latest revelations from the files of Edward Snowden, namely that the National Security Agency had monitored the communications of up to 35 world leaders, including some of America’s closest allies in Europe. We’d already learned some of this with the news that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had personally called President Obama after news leaked of alleged NSA monitoring of her phone call, a phone call which resulted a White House statement that made it rather obvious that the U.S. had indeed monitored Merkel’s phone conversations in the past. Needless to stay, these revelations have put the United States in an uncomfortable position on the world state:
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.”
Leiter said the issues with Germany and France will likely pass, but that U.S. efforts to boost ties with rising powers could be rocky for some time. “It’s much more troublesome for rapidly emerging powers like Brazil,” he said. “They’re critical partners and we don’t have the same long-term, deep national security ties and I think this really does make it hard for us.”
Some analysts say the slow-to-build but intensifying damage overseas was predictable, but not really avoidable because of the legal structure the U.S. uses for vacuuming up communications. While the effectiveness of the controls are debated, collection of intelligence on U.S. soil and about U.S. citizens is regulated by the courts and by intelligence agency policies. Foreigners outside the U.S. are basically considered fair game for American intelligence agencies, with no legal restrictions and few other limits.
The reports are also leading to calls for talks between the U.S. and its European allies over their intelligence relationship, and claims that the revelations have led to a lack of trust:
Early on Friday, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President François Hollande of France emerged from a meeting of European leaders to call for talks with the United States on new rules for their intelligence relationship. A statement from the European leaders said a “lack of trust” could undermine trans-Atlantic intelligence cooperation.
Earlier in the week the European Parliament had acted to suspend an agreement with the United States that allows it to track the finances of terrorist groups, citing suspicions that the United States authorities were tapping European citizens’ personal financial data.
The disclosures contained in the documents leaked by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden have crystallized a growing sense in Europe that post-Sept. 11 America has lost some of the values of privacy and accountability that have been the source of the world’s admiration for its version of democracy.
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.”
Since Sept. 11, 2001, he said, “the balance between freedom and security has been lost.”
To be sure, the United States and Europe are like a bickering couple that will never break up. For all the sharp words, they cannot even begin to contemplate an actual divorce. Many of the European complaints about the United States also seem directed mainly at a domestic audience, and may not result in concrete changes to a relationship that has weathered many storms.
But the United States under Mr. Obama had lost a considerable amount of European patience and good will even before the latest round of disclosures from the leaked N.S.A. documents.
First came the diplomatic shambles over Syria, where, in late summer, the United States seemed poised for military action after the killing of hundreds by chemical weapons. France keenly backed America, as did Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron. But Mr. Cameron unexpectedly failed to get support from his Parliament, Mr. Obama wavered, Russia stepped in with a last-minute diplomatic solution that left Germany and other nations diplomatically bruised, and France was left hanging out to dry.
Barely had the trans-Atlantic partners gotten over that discomfort than the divisive partisan politics of Washington precipitated a government shutdown and brought the United States — and thus Europe and the world — to the brink of default and economic turmoil.
This week, two American ambassadors, Charles H. Rivkin in France and John B. Emerson in Germany, were summoned to the Foreign Ministries in Paris and Berlin for a dressing down by two of America’s closest friends. The depressing spectacle reversed the traditional roles played by Europe and America, certainly for Germany. France is a proud nuclear power, and while relations have been exceptionally warm in recent years, it is strongly independent and a frequent critic, particularly of American culture.
Still, it was unusual to hear the foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, lecture so sternly.
“This sort of practice between partners that invades privacy is totally unacceptable, and we have to make sure, very quickly, that this no longer happens,” he said. “We fully agree that we cooperate to fight terrorism. It is indispensable. But this does not justify that personal data of millions of our compatriots are snooped on.”
It’s easy to dismiss a lot of this with the old “everybody does it” defense, especially since that is largely true when it comes to allies like France and the United Kingdom. At the same time, though, when it comes However, many analysts say that this defense isn’t likely to work anymore:
“Sure, everyone does it, but that’s been an N.S.A. excuse for too long,” one former senior official who talks to Mr. Obama often on intelligence matters said Friday. “Obama has said, publicly and privately, that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it. But everyone has moved too slowly in moving that from a slogan to a policy.”
Diplomats at the United Nations on Friday said that Germany and Brazil, two of the countries whose leaders have been subjected to N.S.A. invasions of their communications, were drafting a General Assembly resolution that would seek to strengthen Internet privacy.
The diplomats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the drafting is still in the early stages, said momentum for the measure, begun in the summer, had been invigorated by the most recent disclosures of American eavesdropping. A formal resolution could be ready for consideration next month in what would be the first internationally coordinated response to the N.S.A. spying. Word of the German-Brazilian initiative was first reported on the Web site of Foreign Policy.
In Europe, where Ms. Merkel and Mr. Hollande demanded Friday that the United States open negotiations on a “code of conduct” that would limit surveillance, there is a sense that the steady stream of revelations may give them an upper hand. Ms. Merkel keeps repeating the phrase that the Americans must “restore trust.” One way the French and Germans intend to do that is to seek some form of inclusion in the inner circle of American intelligence allies, or at least for a deeper intelligence alliance.
Right now that inner circle, called the “Five Eyes,” consists of the United States and four English-speaking partners: Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Those partners agree not to spy on one another and to share in many of the United States’ deepest intelligence secrets, as the trove of highly classified documents made public by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor, makes clear.
In some sense, of course, much of the manuvering by the Germans and the French is motivated as much by the reaction of their own populations to the revelations about NSA spying as anything else. When the stories about the NSA collecting communications data from private citizens in Europe first became public over the summer. Indeed, there were several protests about the matter both leading up to and during President Obama’s last trip to Europe. It seems quite clear, though, that this is about more than just foreign leaders making statements designed to placate their populations. Stalwart American allies are beginning to question our credibility on privacy issues and our assurances that the information being collected is being used solely in the fight against international terrorism rather than for purposes such as industrial espionage, and that the NSA is taking proper steps to ensure that the privacy of most Europeans is being safeguarded just as the NSA purportedly is legally obligated to ensure the privacy of American citizens. This is why you see them taking the steps that they are now.
Will the Germans, French, and others really push this as far as they seem to be implying? That remains to be been. For the moment at least, though, it appears that U.S. credibility in the rest of the world has suffered some real damage from these revelations, and that’s going to make intelligence gathering more difficult going forward.