The Edward Snowden files’ revelation that the United States has been tapping the phones of top French, Mexican, Brazilian, and German politicians should not really surprise anyone, but that is not the real story. The “everyone does it” argument is meant to mitigate the offense, but is wrong on two counts. It is incorrect technically, as no other country has our capabilities. It also fails to take into account the political damage that occurs when a nation initiates large scale espionage operations directed against allied countries, such as France and Germany. The German and French public will rightly assume that Washington will engage in reckless behavior whenever it believes—rightly or wrongly—that its own security is somehow at stake, indicating that the transatlantic relationship only runs in one direction.
One can only assume that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is genuinely furious at having her cell phone conversations intercepted by the National Security Agency (NSA). The president’s claim of ignorance may not hold up, as the German media is reporting that Barack Obama was briefed on the operation three years ago. The Senate Intelligence Committee is likewise claiming that it was not aware of the operation, while intelligence chiefs have spoken up to suggest that the teltaps were done with the cooperation of European intelligence services. The White House has meanwhile circled its wagons, neglecting to include any apology for intelligence operations aimed at America’s allies in its damage control. Nor has it promised to cease and desist in the collection effort; quite the contrary, it is declaring only that it will “reexamine” the program or consider “constraints” on it.
Intelligence agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and NSA have two core functions. The first is to collect essential information that is not available publicly or through open sources, and the second is to analyze that information so it can be understood and used by policy makers. As the collection of intelligence is itself an act of espionage, tapping phones and recruiting sources being illegal in most countries, such operations should normally be undertaken only after being subjected to a rigorous risk versus gain analysis. Unfortunately, however, careful consideration of the potential downside of intelligence collection operations has not been the rule since 9/11. When the covert collection efforts are either revealed or produce a bad result, the unfortunate consequences are referred to as “blowback.”
Blowback can irreparably damage the ability of the United States to obtain crucial information in foreign environments that are poorly understood in Washington. The cultural divide that exists when operating away from home means that CIA and NSA frequently work overseas through a network of liaison contacts. This in theory limits their activity, but it broadens their ability to collect information that can only be plausibly obtained by a local organization with local capabilities. Though nearly everyone also operates clandestinely outside the parameters of the established relationships insofar as it is possible or expedient to do so, there is an awareness that being caught can cause grave damage to the liaison relationship. Because being exposed is nearly always very painful, such operations are normally limited to collection of critical information that the liaison partner would be unwilling to reveal.
So while it might be comforting to claim that “everyone does it” at least some of the time, and it may even be true that local spy agencies sometimes collaborated with NSA, the United States has a great deal to lose by spying on its friends. This is particularly true as Washington, uniquely, spies on everyone, all the time, even when there is no good reason for doing so. It has always done so, often just because it can, which professor Michael Brenner refers to as “technological determinism.” The technological juggernaut combined with bureaucratic inertia demanding that the intelligence agencies “do something” to validate their existence has driven the vast NSA operations that collect huge masses of largely indigestible and often contradictory information.
I am sure that there are some issues that Merkel might discuss on her phone that would be of interest to U.S. policy makers, but it is difficult to imagine that anyone rooted in reality would actually think the operation would be worth the potential risk of exposure. Moreover, aggressive efforts to learn what allies are doing is not limited to NSA. CIA likewise has a history of running operations that are highly risky for relatively little actual gain. In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of European heads of government and political party leaders had their phones and even their residences bugged by the Agency even though there was little actual need to do so. When certain heads of state and government would travel, the Agency would attempt to wire their hotel rooms. Nearly every large CIA station had a technical officer on hand and many had locally recruited telephone company employees on board as assets. Case Officers overseas routinely collect the phone numbers of foreign diplomats and officials. Many of the operations were run just because the technical resources existed to do the tapping. In some cases, a risky operation would be attempted just because it was challenging and would be viewed positively by Agency senior management. One foreign government conference room had microphones installed in it, but the information was found to be so high level and exclusive that actually using it would immediately expose the source, so it was switched off.
There are always arguments being made that the intelligence agencies should “do more.” The U.S. government justified CIA escapades prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union because it feared that secret maneuvers of European coalition governments had to be monitored lest fraternal communist parties in Western Europe obtain power and tilt dramatically towards Moscow, but that was a flawed argument from the start. Only in France did the Confederation Generale du Travail support introduction of a hard-line Soviet-style regime, while the parties in Italy, Spain, and Portugal were known to be wary of any strong identification with the Soviet Union. The threat of a communist takeover of Western Europe was essentially a fantasy spawned by the cold war.
CIA efforts to thwart communist participation in government were frequently successful, but, in retrospect, many of the schemes concocted on the fly to counter the red menace turned out to be counterproductive, actually eroding the development of stable democracies in postwar Europe. In Italy, for example, CIA interfered in elections through the 1970s. The U.S. government’s support of the various unstable coalitions propped up around the Christian Democrats ultimately had a negative effect by institutionalizing corruption at a level that continues to this day, a classic case of blowback. It ironically also empowered the communists, making them appear as genuine nationalists resisting American hegemony.
CIA continued to reflexively seek to penetrate friendly European governments after the fall of communism and even up until 9/11, long after there was any serious threat to disrupt Western European political solidarity with the United States. The operations were sometimes so ineptly run that every once in a while the normally quiescent local counterintelligence services would pick up on what was happening and play along before declaring the errant CIA officers persona non grata and sending them home. In 1995, a major scandal involving French trade positions led to the public expulsion of four CIA officers. There have been similar cases in Italy and Germany that were handled more discreetly by the host countries.
In retrospect, I am sure that many of the more thoughtful managers in the NSA wish they could take back and reconsider their operations to penetrate the private communications of world leaders, but the much bigger problem is that organizations like NSA and CIA are no longer linked to their original raisons d’etre: to collect information to defend the United States and prevent a repeat of Pearl Harbor. The argument that this is all part of America’s necessary counter-terrorism effort post 9/11 is absolutely deficient of any merit. If anything, spying on foreign leaders will lessen cooperation on terrorism and increase concerns among friendly intelligence agencies that the United States lacks proper judgment about how it uses its considerable technical capabilities.
It should be conceded that the United States government now collects all sorts of information that has no plausible connection to national security, including the random accumulation of private information on United States citizens. The Snowden revelations about NSA in particular reveal a government that engages in massive spying and information collection worldwide, 24/7, just because it is capable of doing so. The United States has been embarrassed by the recent spying disclosures, rightly so, but the damage is much greater than that.
No one, friend or foe, can any longer believe that there is some rational process that guides United States national security initiatives. It is like an unthinking predatory beast that has been unchained, and now lashing out in all directions with little discrimination or sense of proportion. If important nations like Germany, France, and Brazil recalibrate their relationships with Washington, it can only damage America’s ability to exercise any foreign policy leadership in a situation where it actually matters. Though given the kind of decision making we have seen emanating from the White House over the past twelve years, it is perhaps just as well that that is the case.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.