Friends Spying on Friends -- The View From Europe

Last week, French officials I interviewed in Paris for a new novel were seething. All they wanted to discuss was U.S. spying on Europe. On condition of anonymity, they explained that the U.S. behavior was outrageous.

Their view was reflected in the European press in which the story leads the news practically every day. Examples are the Financial Times of October 29, which characterized NSA's spying on Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, as "reckless." London's Independent of October 25, declared that European leaders condemned "the out of control spying on citizens and governments." Le Monde in a front page editorial on October 31 called the American actions unacceptable.

The documents released by Edward Snowden, the former contractor, reveal how widespread the spying was by the U.S. National Security Agency. Angela Merkel's cell phone was only the tip of the iceberg. The phone calls of up to 35 world leaders were monitored by Washington's secret agencies. The French media reported that NSA monitored more than 70 million phone records and text messages in France in one month alone. According to Spanish newspapers, NSA tapped more than 60 million phone calls in Spain.

Understandably, European leaders are lashing out against Washington and framing a response. Merkel placed an angry call to Obama about the tapping of her cell phone. At a Brussels summit, Merkel and French President François Hollande had a private meeting to craft a joint position on the issue. Spanish authorities summoned the American ambassador and criticized the United States for conduct that was improper and unacceptable. The German Foreign Minister was quoted in the International New York Times of October 25 as saying that this spying has damaged the friendship between the U.S. and Germany.

In view of this reaction, which was perfectly predictable, it is appropriate to ask U.S. officials responsible for the spying: what in the hell were you thinking? What did you hope to glean from Angela Merkel's cell phone that justified the enormous potential downside? Was the data collected from this embarrassing program even analyzed or evaluated? Was this cyber spying justified by national security considerations or did we do it simply because we could?

Some in the U.S. have discounted this European public reaction claiming that it is intended for domestic consumption. Stewart Baker, for example, a former senior official of the Department of Homeland Security, was quoted in the Financial Times of October 29 as contending that the European outrage may be merely "a tactical approach by people who are losing the intelligence battle with the U.S." Having listened to the Europeans, I reject this cynical approach.

The damage caused by this spying is hard to overestimate. Unfortunately, there will be much greater fallout than mere embarrassment for Washington. It is already having serious adverse consequences for U.S. foreign policy. President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil called off plans for a state visit to Washington following reports that the United States had spied on her personal communications and those of other Brazilians. It is likely that outrage in Europe will derail negotiation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment pact, one of President Obama's key trade initiatives. Moreover, it will impede efforts by Washington to persuade Germany and other EU states to assume greater responsibility in assuring world security. The American European alliance has become fragile according to Le Monde.

At this point, we cannot undo the surveillance or what has been called cyber bullying. It is important, however, that American officials recognize the intensity of the European reaction, that it is serious, and that it is justified. When European intelligence officials come to Washington to discuss the matter, their complaints should be taken seriously and a path forward based on mutual respect should be developed.

In view of the high degree of anger, they cannot and should not be dismissed with a shrug and the defense that "everyone does it." Nor that "we are doing it to protect you and the world." Those won't work. Likewise, we should not quibble about the precise details of how extensive the spying was. The critical facts are that it was widespread and that the anger among Europeans is genuine.

Leaders in Congress recognize this. According to the International New York Times of October 30, some in Congress are making an effort "to rein in NSA." Hearings will be held to get at the facts; and reports issued. Those are positive steps.

Finally, it is critical that President Obama himself take the lead in apologizing and in articulating our future policy on surveillance. Defensive arguments by White House staffers about how much or how little the president knew are counterproductive. Obama should demonstrate leadership. Take charge and create a proper balance between U.S. national security interests and privacy not only of Americans but those in foreign countries.

The Europeans are critical allies at a time when China is nipping at our heels economically and militarily. At the same time, Putin is determined to make Russia a player on the world stage. This controversy merits personal attention of our Commander in Chief. We cannot now endure a rupture in relations with our best friends in the world.