NSA Harmed Transatlantic Relations More Than al-Qaeda Ever Could

NSA Harmed Transatlantic Relations More Than al-Qaeda Ever Could

By Josef Joffe - November 4, 2013

"Every good spy story," my friendly (former) CIA operative told me, "has a beginning, a middle and an end. And so, the snooping on the German chancellor and her European colleagues will surely stop." He didn't say: "It won't resume." Because it always does in a new guise, perhaps more elegantly and subtly.

For states need to know what other states are up to – friends or foes. Even so-called friends are commercial and diplomatic rivals. Some of our friends deal with our enemies, selling them dual-use technology good for insecticides, but also for nerve gas. Or metallurgical machinery that can churns out tools as well as plutonium spheres.

Let's take an earlier story. Recall Echelon, the spy scandal that roiled Atlantic waters in the 90s. It was set up by the Five Eyes – the Anglo powers of the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – to monitor signal traffic in the Warsaw Pact. After the cold war – spies always look for gainful employment – it was turned inward, on the Europeans, to scan satellite-transmitted communications, allegedly for industrial espionage, too.

Was it stopped? Yes, the US handed over its listening station in the town of Bad Aibling to the Germans, but the game never ends. In the last 20 years, the importance of satellites has dwindled in favour of fibre optics, the new object of desire on the part of the Five Eyes and of France. Curiously, the British GCHQ and the French DGSE – which have broken into digital communications networks just as assiduously as has the NSA – have escaped much of the blame.

To deflect the opprobrium piled on the US, the NSA director, Keith Alexander, told Congress on Tuesday that France had acted a subcontractor, supplying his agency with metadata from 70m phone calls collected in just a single month. The general did not finger GCHQ, but we should assume that the Brits – remember Bletchley Park – are much better at the game than the French. They also have a singular strategic advantage. Britain is the place where most of the transatlantic fibre-optic cables converge, so it is a nice place to dig. France has control over fibre-optic cables ending in Marseilles and Brittany.

In Germany, whose BND is also busy tapping traffic in and out of the country, London and Paris are hardly mentioned. The hue and cry, indeed, an orgy of condemnation, is targeted on the United States. And for good reason: Angela Merkel's mobile phone. The gist of the outrage is this: "How can you do this to your friends?" Hence: "We are friends no more".

There is a slight semantic problem here: states – soulless and bloodless institutions – are never friends. People are. States have good relations based on interest, ties and cultural affinities. Merkel has given the wrathmongers just enough fodder to keep them away from her government, by doing such things as calling in the US ambassador, as if he were the minion of a hostile power. The British envoy has escaped unscathed. Still, Merkel won't appropriate hare-brained ideas such as stopping the talks on the transatlantic free-trade zone from which the EU may profit more than the US. Nor will she terminate the intimate relationship between the BND and the rest. Where would she get those NSA tips that led to the arrest of a home-grown terror gang in 2007?

One moral of this tale is the difference between dredging up millions of metadata, which is the common inheritance of all western governments, so to speak, and grabbing hold of the chancellor's mobile phone. This should – and will – end for a simple realpolitik reason: it's not worth the revulsion engulfing Washington. Governments don't need friendship but they do need good will that translates into consent and co-operation. So it is good to know that in Congress, even a diehard Republican like Jim Sensenbrenner, the chairman of the house intelligence committee, is finally moving in on the NSA.

If Merkel's cellphone did it, more power to her. Add now, the outrage ofGoogle and Yahoo whose data networks were hacked by the NSA. An intelligence outfit unchecked is an outfit that runs amok. It is like a man with a hammer to whom everything is a nail. "We do it because we can," is the unspoken motto – and we can do more every day thanks to Moore's law about runaway processing power and speed.

Meanwhile, outrage is accumulating where it counts for most – in the United States, the number one in all things digital and military. As former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner put it: "Let's be honest. We eavesdrop, too. Everyone is listening in to everyone else. But we don't have the same means as the United States, which makes us jealous." And resentful.

Yet the battle will have to be fought and won in the United States. The country's obsession with al-Qaida has turned into paranoia, then hubris and license unbound. In such a setting, the spooks always counter the sceptic's question "Wow much is enough?" with "What if?" Then they go off to pile up ever more haystacks. If none of them contains a needle, so what? Let's buy more harvesters! Like any obsession, paranoia knows no bounds.

By now, "What if?" comes with a hefty political price. Off its leash, the NSA has done more damage to transatlantic relations than any al-Qaida operative could dream up. "We do because we can" needs to be encased by "We shouldn't." The intelligence services should be switched from autopilot to political guidance – with hands on throttle and wheel. This has nothing to do with friendship, and everything with prudence. States should follow their interests, not their obsessions.

This article is reprinted from the Guardian with permisson from the Hoover Institution. 

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