JULY 4, 2013
THE N.S.A.’S COSTLY EUROPEAN ADVENTURE
POSTED BY STEVE COLL
Above: Protesters in Berlin. Photograph by Kay Nietfeld /DPA/AP.
(...)The new disclosures describe data collection and black-bag bugging jobs directed by the United States against European allies, including Germany, France, Britain, and the European Union.
The notionally sophisticated reaction in both Washington and Europe has been mais, bien sur—all countries spy on their friends and betray the trust of their allies (even when, as now, those allies have sent soldiers to fight and die in an expeditionary war, in Afghanistan, that the allies never much believed in, but signed up for mainly out of loyalty to the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). (...)
As the reporters James Fontanella-Khan and Joshua Chaffin pointed out in the Financial Times this week, American diplomats have for four years now waged “an ongoing, multi-agency effort to convince the E.U. to cooperate on a wide array of intelligence gathering, from sharing airline passenger data to watering down consumer data protection legislation.” Persuading democratic governments to share information on their citizens in the name of counterterrorism or any other security priority is fraught with legal and political problems in the best of circumstances. It will now be harder. Was what the Obama Administration learned about the French Ambassador worth it?
As every parent of a nine-year-old has recited at least once, just because “everyone” does something doesn’t mean that it’s smart. Britain reportedly has decided against bugging American facilities on the grounds that, if caught, the damage to London’s reputation in Congress and among the American public as a distinctive, thick-and-thin ally would outweigh any benefits in information collection. That may just be British spin trotted out this week because Government Communications Headquarters, Britain’s equivalent of the N.S.A., hasn’t been caught bugging an American embassy. Yet it is surely better to proffer that story than to say, We’re no worse than anybody else.
The British line reflects the hard lessons of intelligence history. There may be some official secrets that will long remain secret, even in the age of Wikileaks; and yet, no President or Prime Minister should approve a covert action unless he is persuaded after careful review that, even if the action is exposed, its benefits will likely exceed the costs of bad publicity.
The bugging of E.U. offices in Brussels, according to documents obtained by Der Spiegel, is on its face the most puzzling case. For years, nine-to-five European civil servants have been commuting through the dreary Brussels rain to their soul-crushing cubicles in the headquarters of the modern European proto-state, cursing the triviality of their meetings and drowning their sorrows at night with beer. Why break the laws of Belgium to listen in on these specialists in the economics of recycling, antitrust regulation, and the health risks of consumer plastics?
Was the mission to seek for the United States a negotiating edge in “Open Skies” aviation landing rights bargaining on behalf of United Airlines? Or to obtain a file of secret memos that would allow American diplomats to embarrass European agriculture ministers at the next round of talks over excessive Italian vineyard and olive subsidies?
The most likely explanation is that President Obama never carefully discussed or specifically approved the E.U. bugging, and that no cabinet-level body ever reviewed, on the President’s behalf, the operation’s potential costs in the event of exposure. America’s post-September 11th national-security state has become so well financed, so divided into secret compartments, so technically capable, so self-perpetuating, and so captured by profit-seeking contractors bidding on the next big idea about big-data mining that intelligence leaders seem to have lost their facility to think independently. Who is deciding what spying projects matter most and why?