Continuing the Discussion: Reactions to Snowden’s Leaks: Spying is To Be Expected Between Allies

THOMAS PROCTOR
STAFF WRITER at SAIS WASHINGTON

Over the last few weeks, Edward Snowden has released a series of documents on the West’s defense agencies. For some, the revelations have come as a nasty surprise. But should they be?

The leaks have covered a range of surveillance programs from the intelligence community, mostly within the American National Security Agency (NSA). From Angela Merkel to millions of Spanish cell phone users, many people have been investigated by the US’ national security apparatus.

Some degree of political posturing is understandable. However, the threats by some allies to distance themselves from the US as a result of the scandal are misguided at best. Intelligence gathering, especially when limited to data collection, is not a serious threat to US-European ties.

For one, alliances don’t erase differences. Plenty of countries with a “special relationship” with the US, such as Israel, Taiwan and Mexico, have major disagreements with the US on core issues. Ties  between allies aren’t black and white; they cooperate where they can and agree to disagree when they can’t. As long as policy differences between US and the EU remain, then it makes little sense for the US to ignore its strategic interests in Europe.

This position isn’t controversial on the global stage. America may have the West’s largest intelligence apparatus, especially with the interception of signals. However, almost every other country has a similar organization, including the British GCHQ, German BND, French DGSE and Canadian CSEC. In most of Snowden’s leaks, these agencies actively assisted the US collect intelligence in their countries.

The legal basis of the spying is also not a point of contention for most. In a joint research project by the US’ Open Technology Institute and German Stiftung Neue Verantwortung, the legal basis for British, German and American signals intelligences were found to be extremely close. They all place limited oversight over the data collection process, and the actual regulations are vague. The very nature of the material places an absolute limit on transparency, regardless of the country.

If anything, Europe has engaged in some impressive espionage of their own. The UK set up fake Internet cafes around the G-20 while tapping the phones of most the participants. The French have places listening devices in the first-class seats of their Concord planes, and according to last week’s L’Opinion, the US President’s phone as well. Even the Swedes passed a law in 2008 to allow for warrantless wiretaps of its Internet traffic.

“Et tu, Brute,” may not be the most convincing argument, but it does show that spying is not an insult. Policy-makers have important decisions to make, and they have a limited number of ways to learn about the world. Diplomats and journalists can provide some perspective, but with national stakes on the line, it makes sense to verify key facts. A world without intelligence gathering is a world less-informed.

So the next time the UK or the French complain about wiretaps, take a step back. Nothing’s about to end.