The furor over U.S. wiretapping of its allies

The president faced a full-scale diplomatic crisis after leaked documents revealed that the NSA had for years tapped the cellphone of Angela Merkel.

What happened

The Obama administration faced a full-scale diplomatic crisis this week after leaked documents revealed that the National Security Agency had for years tapped the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Citing NSA documents stolen by former contractor Edward Snowden, the German media reported that the monitoring of Merkel began in 2002—three years before she became chancellor—in an operation run from the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. In a phone call with the German leader, President Obama apologized and said that he would have stopped the bugging had he known about it, according to Merkel’s office. But current and former intelligence officials said the White House was not kept in the dark about spying on allies, telling the Los Angeles Times that details of such activities are in daily briefings. Senior administration officials said the president is now considering barring the NSA from spying on the leaders of allied nations.

Outrage was also growing elsewhere in Europe over media reports that the NSA harvested data from more than 70 million phone calls in France—recording some conversations and collecting numbers dialed—and 60 million more calls in Spain during a one-month period at the end of last year. “This type of practice between partners is an assault on privacy,” said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander strongly denied those allegations, telling Congress the records had in fact been handed over by European intelligence agencies.

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What the editorials said

The NSA is out of control, said The New York Times. The agency used to operate on the “understanding that international spying was done in pursuit of a concrete threat to national security.” But since 9/11 the NSA has acted as if everyone is the enemy—even close allies like Merkel—“and that anyone’s rights may be degraded in the name of national security.” Obama must now rein in this rogue agency, or risk permanently damaging our most valued alliances.

Nobody doubts that Merkel is America’s friend, said The Wall Street Journal. “But there are good reasons the U.S. would want to eavesdrop on German chancellors.” In the 1970s, a top aide to then-Chancellor Willy Brandt was exposed as a communist agent, forcing Brandt to resign. More recently, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder sought to scupper the U.S. invasion of Iraq by forming a united diplomatic front with France and Russia. That history shows why it’s a good idea to keep a close eye on Berlin.

What the columnists said

Europeans are faking their outrage, said Max Boot in the New York Post. Yes, the NSA probably snoops on their leaders. But their intelligence agencies also snoop on the U.S. government and other allies. “All states need as much information as possible about the actions and intentions of other states.” And allies have a good reason to spy on one another, said Jack Shafer in Reuters.com: “to confirm that the ally is really an ally.” Knowing that they’re being watched also keeps friendly nations honest, or “at least puts them on notice that their lies might get found out.”

Saying that everyone spies doesn’t justify all spying, said David Rothkopf in ForeignPolicy.com. Sometimes the risks of being caught are too high, as we saw when the NSA was recently caught hacking into the email of Brazil’s president. Soon after, Brazil began talking to Russia, China, and other repressive regimes about increasing local control over Internet governance, a development that could destroy the promise of an open Internet and “the political and economic benefits to the U.S. that might bring.”

The NSA has become too big for its own good, said Ryan Cooper in WashingtonPost.com. Technological improvements allow the agency to spy on all communication, everywhere. But in order to analyze this flood of data, the government has had to expand the security apparatus to an enormous size. More than 4 million people now have security clearances. “That’s an awful lot of potential leakers, and when the everyday operations of the surveillance state are so controversial,” a single leak can cause huge damage to the system. “Whatever you feel about Edward Snowden, he’s unquestionably demonstrated this fact.”

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