There is a price to pay when one nation is accused of spying on its friends and allies, as the Obama administration has been learning with recent embarrassing disclosures that American intelligence agencies appear to have been targeting not only potential military and economic rivals but also our nation’s best friends.
Granted, the nation needs to be aggressive in combating terrorism, and we’ve found many of the complaints about the monitoring of overseas calls overblown. But spying on allies and jeopardizing relations with our strongest allies suggests a recklessness or lack of oversight in the surveillance efforts.
Americans deserve an explanation.
Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, was the latest foreign leader to express anger at Washington upon being told that the United States had been listening in to her telephone conversations.
Merkel called President Obama on Wednesday to tell him she found the American behavior “completely unacceptable.” According to an aide, she also told Obama that “between close friends and partners ... there should be no such surveillance of the communications of a head of government” and she described such behavior as “a great breach of trust.”
She also declared: “Such practices must cease immediately.”
The White House issued a statement saying that Obama assured Merkel that the United States “is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of Chancellor Merkel,” but the statement was silent about whether such monitoring had happened in the past.
And that raises some disturbing questions: Did the president know of the monitoring, and, if not, what does that tell us about the administration’s oversight of the National Security Agency?
It was the second time in three days that allegations of American surveillance jeopardized the normally excellent relations between Washington and America’s European allies.
There was also outrage in France over reports in the newspaper Le Monde that American intelligence had collected data on 70 million telephone calls by French citizens in a 30-day period late last year and into January. Brazil and Mexico also have protested about being the targets of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program. Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, canceled a visit the White House this week to protest the spying.
Many Americans are concerned about the extent and nature of our government’s spying activities at home.
The latest espionage embarrassments were the result of disclosures by the fugitive intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, whose stolen data about the spying has found its way into several major newspapers.
However, three years ago — before Snowden fled to Hong Kong and then to Moscow — the Mexican government learned that it had been under scrutiny by American intelligence agencies, presumably seeking to gain knowledge that might help wage the war on drugs.
“This practice is unacceptable, illegitimate and contrary to Mexican and international law,” the Mexican government declared at the time. “In a relationship between neighbors and partners, there is no place for the kind of activities that allegedly took place.”
Since then, however, Snowden disclosed that this past June the National Security Agency (NSA) had monitored the emails of Enrique Pena Nieto just a month before he was elected Mexico’s president.
Global and domestic espionage, enabled by the latest technology, is necessary.
The United States is hardly alone in surveillance.
But our nation’s leaders should be constantly vigilant about whether our security efforts have gone too far. It’s clear our allies have already reached that conclusion.