NSA spying: The faux outrage of America's bugged allies

Will the U.S. curtail its electronic spying now that key allies such as France and Germany have been caught in the web? Don't bet on it, says Neil Macdonald.

Will the U.S. curtail its electronic spying? Don't bet on it

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden says the U.S. spied on German Chancellor Angela Merkel through her cellphone. The latest incident is bound to cool German-U.S. relations even more. (Tobias Schwarz / Reuters)

Try to follow the logic here.

In the spring, former CIA contractor Edward Snowden tells the world about the true extent of America's electronic surveillance: it's just about total. Everyone's communications, everywhere, are collected and, at the very least, analyzed for patterns.

A huge number of foreign citizens are upset, as well as a lot of Americans.

So a few months later, President Barack Obama orders a review of America's foreign intelligence gathering.

That review confirms certain things that, Obama's officials are now telling reporters, the president didn't know, such as the National Security Agency's wiretapping of at least 35 world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Obama then tells the NSA to stop bugging some of them. It's a safe bet the review told, or will tell Obama other things he didn't know, as well.

Had it not been for Snowden, who is now hiding out in Russia, President Obama would probably not know about these practices he's now reviewing and halting.

Certainly the American public wouldn't. Meaning Snowden fits the classic definition of a whistleblower.

At the same time, if it could lay its hands on Snowden, the U.S. government would lock him up.

It may not sound logical, but it is, perversely. Because this particular whistle is one America and its allies are anxious to leave unblown.

Snowden has laid out the stark difference between what the U.S. and most countries say in public and what they do behind a vigorously enforced curtain of secrecy.

Yet the whole uproar rests on a ridiculous notion: that there is, or should be, some sort of morality governing the way nations deal with each other.

Faux outrage

I've met my share of (mostly Canadian) spies over the years, and while some of them are remarkably sensitive to civil liberties, the notion of citizen privacy never even enters the equation for them.

"I'm a believer in intelligence," one of them told me the other day. "I'm not sure there are limits. Spying is a way for governments to make better decisions."

In other words, gather all the information you can, period. And let others decide what to do with it.

Americans upset at the country's electronic spying take part in a "rally against mass surveillance" in Washington on Saturday. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

Fortunately for Canada it is part of the so-called Five Eyes network, along with the U.S., Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

These nations are in fact so integrated that they effectively comprise a single colossal listening organization, the most powerful in history, with America in charge.

In principle, at least, membership in the Five Eyes immunizes the individual members from being spied upon by the other Four Eyes. So the Americans aren't listening to Stephen Harper, said one of my contacts, "unless it's an emergency."

The second tier of Western surveillance expertise comprises Israel, Sweden, Germany, Finland, Norway, Italy and France.

All are proficient, say the professionals, and all spy on any target deemed to be in their national interest, whether related to security or commerce.

France has long been regarded as the most adept at stealing trade secrets.

So, "there's a lot of faux outrage out there" whenever a Snowden bomb drops, one contact says.

In fact, one of the few straightforward reactions amid all the indignation over the NSA spying came from Bernard Kouchner, the former French foreign minister (and founder of Doctors Without Borders): "Let's be honest, we eavesdrop too," he told an interviewer.

"Everyone is listening to everyone else. But we don't have the same means as the United States, which makes us jealous."

What privacy?

Another Canadian I know, who has considerable expertise in secret eavesdropping, says that when you're involved in negotiating something like a trade treaty the job is clear.

"The PM's going to say 'what's their position?' and you'd better know."

The Snowden disclosures, because Snowden worked for American intelligence, relate strictly to the Five Eyes, and have caused panic, he says, in Ottawa, London, Canberra, Wellington and, of course, Washington.

Task forces have been set up and are desperately bracing government leaders for upcoming bombshells.

Again, not because these revelations will be news to anyone in the secret world, or to politicians who have been briefed, but because of the anger they can provoke in unbriefed general populations.

Governments facing that sort of public anger have to make gestures, perhaps even serious ones. Hence the warning from European leaders about damage to trade talks, and Germany's threat to expel American diplomats who might have passed along Merkel's cellphone number.

The other danger of the Snowden disclosures, of course, is that they reveal methods that should make any sensible person more careful about what he or she says on a cellphone or landline, or in an email.

While most of us have long understood that privacy is a fading commodity, something in human nature still expects that a phone call or email is a closed communication, and we tend to behave as though it is.

That behaviour is what the electronic spies count upon, and want to preserve.

Which explains the utter silence from national leaders on the subject of surveillance. They know such work is most efficiently done in the dark, and they treasure the intelligence it produces.

As for the notion that the U.S. will stop listening to certain foreign leaders, or anyone else for that matter, reality would suggest otherwise.

Stewart Baker, a George W. Bush-era security official, described the issue last week with characteristic neoconservative bluntness.

"Even the countries we usually see as friends sometimes take actions that quite deliberately harm the United States and its interests," he wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York Times.

"Ten years ago, when the U.S. went to war with Iraq, France and Germany were not our allies. They were not even neutral. They actively worked with Russia and China to thwart the U.S. military's mission.

"Could they act against U.S. interests again in the future — in trade or climate change negotiations, in Syria, Libya or Iran?" he asked rhetorically.

Nearly a century ago, then U.S. statesman Henry Stimson famously said about spying that "Gentlemen don't read each other's mail."

Spies, though, aren't gentlemen. And neither are nations they serve. 


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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