Other countries’ leaders are said to be stunned and outraged that the National Security Agency — the NSA — collects phone and email records on some of their citizens in its perpetual quest for anything having to do with terrorism. They shouldn’t be.
Nor should they be surprised that the United States and Great Britain monitored emails and phone calls involving other countries’ delegates at a 2009 conference of world leaders in London.
Other nations can posture if they like about being spied on by an ally and about U.S. and British gall in eavesdropping on participants at an international conference, but one senses that’s for domestic consumption. The reality is that nations spy on one another — even on friends.
There’s little reason to doubt that the Chinese, Russians, Israelis, Iranians, Germans, French and others are covertly looking for information that serves their national interests. Prudent nations are alert to such efforts, erect barriers and conduct efforts to deter and detect spies. Intelligence and counterintelligence are facts of international life.
However, our allies do have reason to be angry and disappointed that the NSA’s activities, or at least some of them, have been made public. The nations with whom we share sensitive information have ample reason to wonder how well the United States can keep secrets. Publicity can compromise certain policies and plans and put agents at risk.
Worse, allies have reason to conclude that if the United States, intentionally or otherwise, would allow someone as undistinguished as Edward J. Snowden, a former contract employee, access to sensitive information, then anyone could acquire data that might affect their national security. Such trust, when broken, is difficult to rebuild.
Snooping on some foreign citizens’ communications with Americans disturbs people in other countries as much as it disturbs many Americans. President Barack Obama’s statement that the United States doesn’t listen in on citizens’ phone calls won’t be much more reassuring to Germans and other Europeans than it is to wary Americans, even if it is true. The NSA’s activities and leaks surfaced at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland and they’re certain to be topics again in Berlin.
Such surveillance is a flawed trade-off for the security it seeks to protect. Given the threats to our nation, it’s also less offensive than the potential harm. As New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman observed in a column last week, “... one more 9/11 — or worse, an attack involving nuclear material” on our country “could lead to the end of the open society as we know it.”
That’s worth translating into the languages of every nation whose people cherish openness and personal liberty.