AT FIRST coolly dismissive, now shaken and divided, the Obama administration is still grappling for the right response to the diplomatic and domestic political fallout from revelations by the media allies of Edward Snowden, a fugitive former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor.
On October 29th, realising that the political mood in Washington was, in the words of one security official, “turning ugly,” the NSA’s boss, General Keith Alexander, and the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, came out slugging. Giving evidence to a congressional committee, both men vigorously denied that the agency had “gone rogue.” In particular, they strongly rejected charges that the NSA had collected data on tens of millions of phone calls in France, Spain and Italy without the knowledge of their governments. They claimed the data had been handed over by those countries’ spooks. Neither Mr Snowden nor the journalists interpreting his material had understood it. The implication was that the European leaders who had joined in the chorus of popular protests about Mr Snowden’s disclosures were either hypocritical or ignorant.
The two men were on shakier ground when it came to defending spying on the leaders of allied or friendly countries. An unapologetic Mr Clapper argued that deciphering “foreign leadership intentions” was “a basic tenet” of the intelligence operations of almost any government. He denied that the NSA undertook such activities without political approval. That is debatable. Unquestionably, the biggest embarrassment for the administration emanating from the Snowden leaks has been allegations (apparently accurate) about the tapping of one of Angela Merkel’s mobile phones — news that surfaced on the eve of a European Union summit towards the end of last week. Barack Obama, it seems, knew nothing about it.
The stormy reaction not just in Germany, but across much of Europe, to the bugging of the German chancellor by the NSA from the time she became opposition leader over a decade ago has clearly rattled the White House. Mrs Merkel, a notably steadfast ally of America, phoned Mr Obama to complain about the “breach of trust” and to suggest the need for new ground rules for data gathering between America and Europe. Later she said that “spying among friends is not at all acceptable. We need to have trust in our allies and partners, and this trust must now be established once again.”
The White House first took the unusual step of issuing a statement saying that Mrs Merkel’s phone is not and will not be monitored (albeit without commenting on whether it used to be).
A few days later, Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairwoman of the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee, was briefed that Mr Obama was considering ordering the NSA to cease eavesdropping on the leaders of America’s allies.
This would be among other changes likely to be announced next month, following an internal review which has found that the NSA was actively monitoring the communications of some 35 world leaders, confirming allegations published in the Guardian newspaper. The U.N. says America has promised to stop spying on its communications.
Ms Feinstein, previously a doughty defender of America’s spooks, declared: “I do not believe the United States should be collecting the phone calls or e-mails of friendly presidents and prime ministers.” She added that her committee would be conducting its own “major review into all intelligence-collection programmes.”
The disclosures about Mrs Merkel’s phone were not the first of their kind. In September Glenn Greenwald, Mr Snowden’s main journalistic conduit, told Brazil’s TV Globo that he had a 24-slide PowerPoint presentation which showed how the NSA had intercepted the e-mails and text messages of Brazilian and Mexican leaders. The NSA, he said, had been snooping on Enrique Peña Nieto well before he became president last year and had also been tracking the e-mails, texts and phone calls of Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff. It emerged later that Mexico’s previous president, Felipe Calderón, had also been bugged. Only too aware that America is its biggest trading partner, Mexico’s official response has been almost more one of sorrow than of anger. Though its foreign minister, Antonio Meade, decried “an abuse of trust between partners,” he has stopped short of an open breach with Washington.
Not so Ms. Rousseff. Unimpressed by Mr Obama’s response to her demand for a full explanation, she cancelled a state visit scheduled for this month. It would have been the first since 1995 and an opportunity to rebuild a relationship that had frayed under her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Brazilians, already incensed to learn that the NSA had been monitoring their internet traffic for years, applauded. Ms Rousseff’s popularity, on the slide since huge street protests in June, has recovered, in good time for next year’s election.
But in some countries, at least, the furore is misleading. Until the revelations about her own phone being tapped, Mrs Merkel had tried to play down what the German press had called America’s “spy attack.” She may not be even all that shocked now, but believe she must at least appear to be. The bugged mobile phone seems to be an elderly Nokia that she used mainly for party business. For government business, she has a pricey encrypted phone. Its maker, Secusmart, avers that even the NSA would take 149 billion years to crack the code (though NSA hackers might see that as a nice challenge). If she was using the Nokia for anything important, a security expert says, “she has a lot more than the NSA to be worried about.”
The row may help Mrs Merkel’s argument that Germany should have more access to the intelligence material gathered and shared by the Anglophone countries (America, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) under the so called “Five Eyes” agreement. But most Germans are genuinely outraged by the idea that their government’s wireless communications are being monitored from the roof of the American embassy barely a stone’s throw from the Brandenburg Gate.
In France it has met with a Gallic shrug. President François Holland also called Mr Obama to express his “profound disapproval” of the snooping on Mrs Merkel and to say that he wanted to join her in talks with the Americans over the nature and scale of intelligence-gathering. However, the French are cynical about the stuff their governments get up to and few of them will be surprised to hear that the country’s external-intelligence agency, the DGSE, has collaborated with the NSA in gathering “metadata” on the phone calls (such as their direction and duration), e-mails and web-browsing of French citizens.
A stream of former security officials has already appeared on the airwaves or in print to claim that there is nothing to be surprised at. Bernard Squarcini, formerly France’s counter-intelligence chief, told Le Figaro that he was “amazed by such disconcerting naïveté. You would almost think our politicians don’t bother to read the reports they get from the intelligence services.” He added: “All countries, even when they co-operate on counter-terrorism, spy on their allies.” Nearly two-thirds of respondents in a recent poll agreed.
Where will things go from here? Europeans may want new rules drawn up with the Americans, but they will not press their case too hard for fear of undermining intelligence co-operation that they depend on. Germany may be offered a special deal because it, unlike France, does not have a record of conducting direct offensive operations against America.
Home-grown constraints on America’s spying are another question. Two complementary bipartisan bills aimed at reducing the “trust deficit” created by the Snowden revelations and placing limits on the bulk collection of American citizens’ metadata were introduced to Congress this week.
The White House and Senate Intelligence Committee reviews may be a greater jolt to the NSA’s activities. It is unlikely that America’s spy agencies will be told to stop all eavesdropping on friendly foreign leaders — the definition of who or what is a friend is hard to fix (spying on Mrs Merkel may be hard to fathom, less so her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, whose links with Vladimir Putin were a source of real concern). But rather than relying on general guidelines, as in the past, they may need political approval each time.
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