And the plot thickens. It now looks like Edward Snowden’s release of NSA and CIA information will have ramifications outside the borders of the United States. If you’ll recall, Snowden not only released secrets on the NSA’s PRISM program that involved collecting the phone and Internet records of millions of Americans, but also released information on American and British surveillance programs that targeted foreign diplomats at international summits. Now members of the European Union, which includes some of America’s strongest allies, are speaking out against the programs.
The scandal seems to go deeper than we originally thought. The initial accusations included claims that the British government had set up fake Internet cafes during the G20 summit and monitored diplomatic communications among foreign representatives. We are now learning that this may have also gone on within U.S. borders. New documents suggest that American intelligence agencies were monitoring up to 38 foreign embassies, including those belonging to Germany, France, Italy, South Korea, Japan, India, and countless others. The NSA reportedly hacked into encrypted fax machines and was able to read communications that these diplomats were sending back to their home countries.
This new information has caused the European Union to question the integrity of the American government. EU Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding voiced her concerns about how trade negotiations could continue with this knowledge. In addition, Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “this is unacceptable, it can’t be tolerated. We’re no longer in the Cold War.”
I tend to agree with Commissioner Reding Chancellor Merkel. I don’t think anyone would be surprised or outraged if we were spying on North Korea or Iran. After all, both of those countries have made serious threats against the United States and/or its allies. One could make a strong argument that it would be necessary to spy on those countries to protect our interests. But the countries we are not accused of spying on do not exactly fit into the same category. Just look at the list. Germany, France, Italy, South Korea, Japan, and India are all included in the top 15 trade partners of the United States, and there are surely other important trade partners on the list of 38. They’re all countries that we more or less have friendly relations with. And they’re all countries that we have invited onto our own soil, supposedly in an effort to improve those relations. And now the American government has caused its own citizens and foreign governments to question its motives.
The most important question here is simply, why? Why jeopardize our relationships with our most important allies? And what are we even looking for? Back in 2008 General Keith B. Alexander, head of the NSA, asked during a visit to a British intelligence station why we couldn’t collect all the information we can as often as we can? That suggests to me that we might not even be looking for anything in particular. It looks to me like we’re spying just for the sake of spying. And that’s probably the most troubling part of this whole ordeal. We’re breaking the trust of countries that we depend on for what amounts to nothing.
If you’ve read any of my other blogs on the NSA scandal, you’ll probably see that I’m a little more willing than some to give the government a pass when it comes to surveillance as long as they aren’t using the information to censor us or hamper our freedoms. But this is a whole different animal. We are by no means a self-sufficient country. We depend on foreign trade and if you look at the largest foreign owners of U.S. debt you’ll see quite a few EU and Asian countries on that list. We’re playing a dangerous game here. We’re no longer talking about collecting data to stop terrorism. That at least has some merit. Now we’re talking about spying on our allies, allies who have to be able to trust us to conduct business or any other sort of diplomatic relations. Well, kiss that trust goodbye. We just keep digging ourselves deeper and deeper into what’s beginning to look like a bottomless pit.
The United States government: Breaking the trust of American citizens and foreign governments since (CLASSIFIED).
Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research