Europeans are outraged. At least that's how it appears from newspaper and Internet headlines about the latest revelation from American leaker Edward Snowden: that the U.S. National Security Agency spies extensively on its European allies. A closer examination suggests something more subtle.
The Snowden stories, published by the Guardian in the U.K. and Der Spiegel in Germany, make several revelations. First, that the NSA was spying on the European Union’s delegations in Washington and at the United Nations. Second, that it was bugging several embassies, including those of France, Italy and Greece. Third, that the NSA was targeting crucial EU communications in Brussels. And fourth, that German telephone and Internet data were targeted far more than any other in Europe.
According to the Guardian, this put Germany in the same category "as China, Iraq or Saudi Arabia, while the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were deemed to be allies not subject to remotely the same level of surveillance.”
In the U.K., the Guardian went big on its scoop, but others were less excited. The Financial Times, for example, reported the story on an inside page with no comment. It gave more space on the same page to a story about Norway’s oil fund. Maybe U.K. audiences are already blase -- they learned last month that the U.K. had spied on foreign politicians and diplomats at Group of 20 summits in 2009. So news that our friends are spying on us when we spy on them might not be earth-shattering.
The reaction in Italy was quite different. La Repubblica devoted generous space to the story, focused on the revelation that the NSA was bugging the Italian embassy in Washington, which had the NSA codenames “Bruneau” and “Hemlock”. Corriere Della Sera also devoted large amounts of space to the story. My guess is that Italians are secretly proud that the Americans think Italy is worth spying on.
Guido Olimpio, in an opinion piece in Corriere Della Sera, made two important points: that European governments are right to demand explanations from the U.S., and that these same governments are collaborating with the Americans and their intelligence-gathering sidekicks, the British, because they “are dependent on the ‘wizards’ of technology, the U.S.A.”
The Germans seem genuinely upset. What really angers them is the idea that Germany is a second-class ally relative to the U.K., and whether, as Der Spiegel asked, they “can be spied on at any time?” Still, while Germans were reading indignant editorials about the affair and politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, were issuing stern statements about how trans-Atlantic relations would be damaged if the stories proved true, others smelled hypocrisy.
On Twitter, Bojan Pancevski, the Brussels correspondent of London’s Sunday Times, summed up comments on the affair by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, with the following: “spying on friends not unusual, get a life.”
From his @bopanc account, he captured the sardonic mood: “NSA in cruel & unusual punishment row after revelations that it forced employees to bug #EU offices in the US.” In another post he doubted that anyone would bother listening to the tapes.
There was a measure of this tone in some of the French coverage of the affair. Le Figaro noted that Manuel Valls, the French interior minister, who on June 28 was visiting the New York Police Department to discuss a liaison program, has been relatively relaxed about the whole affair until now. He recently talked of “excellent cooperation” between the U.S. and France in intelligence gathering. According to Le Figaro, he implicitly came “to understand that Europeans profited from Prism,” the NSA intelligence gathering operation.
You can see where Valls is coming from. On June 18, the French investigative site Mediapart reported Valls's planned visit. Asked about a case of alleged domestic, illegal phone tapping, Valls shrugged off the issue saying: “It could be that there are practices outside the boundaries of the law.”
“Bugging friends is unacceptable,” Merkel said July 1, but as is so often said, countries have interests, not friends. Perhaps the lesson is that Europeans should be better at spying on their U.S. counterparts, so they can be equally informed about the other side's position in important negotiations such as trade talks. Governments, unlike citizens, are surely fair game.
(Tim Judah, the Europe correspondent for the World View blog, is a correspondent for the Economist and author of several books on the Balkans. Follow him on Twitter.)
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