The Cost of Surveillance

American foreign policy has long been an exercise of divided labor. For more than fifty years, we have parceled out responsibility for guiding America's path in the world among the Departments of State and Defense, the CIA, the NSA, and other smaller agencies. This arrangement has always presented challenges, but has come to a head with the latest wave of embarrassing revelations regarding our nation's espionage activities in Europe. Recently, in a stunning turn, the German government expelled our top intelligence officer in Berlin, boiling the already hot waters of transatlantic relations.

As this unfolding drama continues, it is clear that part of the problem stems from the divergent roles of the intelligence and diplomatic sides of the American foreign policy apparatus. The CIA and NSA, responsible for collecting information to help guide and inform policy, see primarily the benefit of spying on allies like Germany -- from their perspective, more information is always better. But while policy-makers may benefit from this intelligence, the cost -- especially when the espionage is exposed -- ultimately accrues to the State Department, Department of Defense, and, of course, the White House.

The White House must weigh the various benefits and costs of these activities and decide which are truly worth pursuing. In the case of U.S. surveillance of close allies like Germany, the marginal benefit of continued efforts to gather political information about friendly governments is not worth the cost of further straining bilateral relations.

These disruptions are potentially deeply injurious to U.S. national security interests. With Russian aggression continuing along its western border, nuclear negotiations with Iran coming to a climax, and the state of the Middle East deteriorating every day, the U.S.-European relationship is more critical than ever. We cannot break faith with important allies like Germany because it could compromise our ability to speak with one voice when confronting these ongoing and developing crises.

It is important to note, however, that intelligence gathering is an important tool of statecraft -- the ultimate purpose of which is to protect the American people and our interests. It is also an important joint endeavor between our agencies and their counterparts in Europe. We shouldn't forget, for instance, that several of the 9/11 attackers lived and trained in Germany. Much of our work to find and track terrorists and potential terrorists must be in coordination with our European partners.

But anti-terrorism intelligence gathering is very different from politically-motivated surveillance. We weren't tapping Chancellor Merkel's phone, or the offices of European Parliament members, to find terrorists. We were doing it to gain access to information that would give us a leg up in our bilateral relationships -- to be one step ahead of unfolding events. The information we collected may have provided some advantage to our diplomats -- but nowhere near the headache once the efforts were found out. And we know that it is harder than ever to keep these types of secrets. Even as technology has increased our ability to collect information, it has also increased the likelihood that that information and the methods used to collect it will become public. In an environment of Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, and hackers around the globe, it's a reasonable assumption that whoever we are spying on will eventually find out. That means that the calculation of risk versus reward is more critical than ever.

This calculation will be different in each case, depending on the nature of our relationship with each nation and the associated U.S. security interests. There cannot, and should not, be a "one size fits all" approach to political espionage. It is also important to note that this issue has arisen in the midst of an important broader domestic debate over U.S. surveillance policy. Recent revelations that the NSA intercepted the emails of thousands of innocent Americans underscore the concern that we need to do a better job of balancing U.S. security interests with the need to protect individual privacy.

The bottom line is this: just because we can obtain a piece of information, or listen into a conversation, doesn't mean we should. This is especially true when it comes to our nation's most important allies, like Germany. The President needs to give our close allies specific assurances that the administration is changing, or perhaps eliminating, politically motivated intelligence gathering activities now, while the transatlantic relationship can be rescued. In a chaotic, rapidly unwinding world, the benefit of saving this partnership is well worth the cost of missing out on a few secrets.