From U.S. shores, it’s easy to underestimate how seriously Europe is taking last week’s revelation that the National Security Agency was spying on America’s European allies.
The global impact of the NSA Prism spy project could be a big blow to the U.S. economy. The Wall Street Journal notes that Forrester Research estimates a loss of $180 billion in lost business to cloud computing, I.T. services, and data hosting companies.
Across Europe, the story was, and remains, huge. When news of it broke Thursday afternoon, every major international network--from Russia’s “Russia Today” to Germany’s “Deutche Welle” to England’s “BBC” broadcasted near continuous coverage of the revelations.
This wall-to-wall coverage has allowed the anger expressed toward President Obama and the NSA by European leaders like Angela Merkel to grow with the broader European public. Now, there are calls in some countries for the NSA to be charged with crimes.
White House officials have insisted that President Obama did not know that the NSA was spying on leaders, including Merkel. He’s assured her that the NSA is no longer monitoring her phone. But there are already repercussions from this serious breach of trust: European leaders are considering cutting off U.S. access to a key financial database. Talks are now underway to set spying parameters, and United States is not in a position to make demands.
But it’s important to offer context on just exactly what the NSA was doing. It’s also important to note that many of the European countries that are complaining about the NSA use its data to hunt terrorists. And the idea that allies do not spy on one another is absurd. In fact, many of the countries voicing the loudest complaints are guilty of the same thing.
Here are three things to keep in mind as the scandal unfolds:
- It’s not clear what the NSA was gathering from Angela Merkel’s phone. The White House has admitted that the NSA erred when it targeted the phones of European leaders, including Merkel, one of the most powerful women in the world. But officials also said that they received little useful intelligence from the calls.
So it remains to be seen whether the NSA was simply monitoring whom Merkel was talking to, or if they were actually listening to the calls. The Germans are likely to argue that it doesn’t matter; the phone should not have been targeted in the first place. But American officials could argue that the surveillance was passive, not active.
- Germany and other critics of the NSA collaborate with the agency. German authorities are well regarded in law enforcement circles for their ability to stop attacks before they occur. How they are so effective is a secret: very few in the German government, and even fewer outside of it, know how the BND – the German foreign intelligence service – does its work.
But reports in Der Spiegel from earlier this year show that the BND and NSA closely cooperate. Even NSA leaker Edward Snowden has said that the American and the Germans are “in bed together.” The same can be said of the French, British and Spanish intelligence services. All receive information from the NSA and use it to fight terrorism. This time, however, the NSA went too far.
- Some of our European allies spy on the United States. As I mentioned, little is known about the BND. But it’s widely believed in intelligence circles that the Germans largely leave the United States and other allies alone.
In France, that’s not the case. The Wikileaks cables released in 2011 showed that the United States knew France conducted industrial espionage against its European partners. French efforts are reportedly well ahead of China and Russia, the supposed leaders in the field.
None of these points are meant to absolve the Obama administration of responsibility for the NSA’s activities. Increasingly, it seem as if the agency is out of control. But the proper context is necessary to put the NSA’s actions in place.
Yet even with this context, the harm the most recent revelations have caused will be difficult to reverse.
"The government in Washington has apparently not yet understood the level of damage that continues to be caused by the activities of American intelligence agencies in Europe,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, perhaps Germany's most important newspaper, wrote in a recent editorial.