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The U.S. probably won't pay for spying on its allies
The NSA reportedly hacked the Mexican president's email and snooped on millions of French citizens. Will it matter in the long run?
 
For Hollande, a little deja vu.
For Hollande, a little deja vu. (REUTERS/Pascal Pochard-Casabianca/Pool)

Last week, investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald claimed that there were "a lot more stories" to come out of the information leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

This week, two such stories have already emerged. Today, a report in Le Monde claimed that the NSA had swept up more than 70 million French telephone records over a single 30-day period.

Yesterday, German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that the NSA had hacked its way into the public email account of former Mexican President Felipe Calderon while he was in office in 2010, as well as the email accounts of his cabinet members, which the agency deemed "a lucrative source" of information about "Mexico's political system and internal stability."

The NSA also reportedly monitored communications coming from Petrobras, an oil company that is partly owned by the Brazilian government. The reports have been met with outrage by foreign officials.

"If an allied country spies on France or spies on other European countries, that's totally unacceptable," Manuel Valls, France's interior minister, told Europe 1 radio. In response, the U.S. ambassador to France, Charles Rivkin, has been summoned by the French foreign ministry to answer questions.

In Mexico, the foreign ministry condemned the NSA's actions as "unacceptable, illegal, and against Mexican and international law." Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has been trashing the United States for more than a month now, even canceling a state visit to Washington, D.C., after reports surfaced that the NSA had spied on her personal communications in the past.

All of this, of course, is tremendously embarrassing for the White House and a major headache for the U.S. State Department. Concerns are especially pronounced in Silicon Valley. Stricter privacy laws abroad could make it harder for companies like Google and Facebook to share consumer data across international borders, cutting into potential profits.

In fact, U.S. internet companies have been fighting for the ability to disclose more information about their cooperation with the NSA, in hopes of quelling privacy fears that could drive foreign users to local alternatives. Two months ago, six technology trade groups sent a letter to the White House asking for reforms, claiming that privacy concerns could cost the industry $35 billion worldwide.

Still, those are smaller concerns from one industry acting out of self-interest. As Google's recent $14.9 billion record quarter demonstrates, NSA snooping concerns might, ultimately, not have a huge effect on the U.S. tech industry's bottom line.

That prompts the question: Will the international backlash actually cause Washington to make substantive policy changes?

Answer: Probably not.

If recent history continues, the U.S. will hear much sound and fury from its allies over the spying revelations, but it will see very little action. After all, the United States — invasive surveillance program or not — is the world's largest economy, and a large trading partner with most of the countries in question.

Mexican officials, for instance, reacted to today's leaks with angry rhetoric, but no action. Mexico sends about 80 percent of its exports to the United States, and has received more than $1 billion in security aid from Washington to help fund its war against the country's drug cartels.

Brazil and France, meanwhile, are the eighth and 10th largest trading partners of the United States, respectively. Canceling a visit to Washington might help calm angry Brazilian voters, but the meeting itself, according to the White House, has been merely "postponed" until a later "mutually agreed" date.

And France has been through this whole dog-and-pony show before. In July, French President François Hollande took the lead in threatening to scuttle a massive trans-Atlantic trade deal potentially worth $127 billion to the United States and $157 billion to the European Union after reports came out that the NSA had spied on several EU offices.

"We cannot accept this kind of behavior between partners and allies," Hollande said then, publicly advocating for a delay in talks until the United States could guarantee that the NSA would never spy on EU officials again. Negotiations continued soon afterwards, as planned.

Considering that France has an intelligence agency that has been accused of doing the same things as the NSA, many foreign-policy experts saw all of the bluster as a tool to gain leverage in trade talks, not exactly an uncommon occurrence in global politics.

U.S. officials, for their part, don't seem too worried about the latest controversy. The relationship between France and the United States, Rivkin said as he was summoned by the French foreign ministry, was the "the best it's been in a generation." New revelations about the NSA probably won't change that.

 
Keith Wagstaff is a staff writer at TheWeek.com covering politics and current events. He has previously written for such publications as TIME, Details, VICE, and the Village Voice.

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