It is often remarked that espionage is the second-oldest profession. Written records from Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Iran suggest that spying and civilization sprang up together. In antiquity, spies could be the hidden bureaucrats of tyranny or good governance (a ruler needed to know whether a satrap was cheating the crown and its subjects) or, less often, camouflaged itinerants writing home about the machinations of rival city-states, empires, or barbarian tribes. In modern times, espionage went Orwellian, becoming primarily a tool to buttress police states. In the heartland of the West—Mother England and all her Lockean children—spying mostly has been aimed overseas and seldom has been lethal except to recruited agents in blown operations. Among the common-law-loving English-speaking nations, domestic spying has overwhelmingly targeted only nefarious foreigners, their local recruits, and successful and wanton criminals.
America’s digital and human snoops have operated under a long-accepted rule that all foreigners—excluding our Anglophone mates—were potentially acceptable targets. When I entered the Central Intelligence Agency’s Directorate of Operations in 1985, senior case officers prided themselves on the organization’s global reach and the expectation that junior officers, who do the lion’s share of the clandestine service’s agent recruiting, would proselytize like Mormons no matter where Langley sent them. We were not supposed to be morally squeamish about our “developmentals” so long as attempts to recruit them matched headquarters’s requirements, which followed a wish-list of information areas from CIA analysts, the military, Foggy Bottom, the White House, Congress, and many other government agencies.
And here’s the Edward Snowden/National Security Agency rub: Because of advances in technology, and its greater discreetness, Fort Meade, home of the NSA, has probably replaced Langley as the primary clandestine collector of intelligence in Europe. CIA operations, if detected, might be truly annoying to Europeans, but such operations have been sufficiently small-scale, familiar, and usually unsuccessful that they could either be ignored or forgotten quickly (except by European counterespionage services). Because of its potential range and the inadequacy of European defense, the NSA has become scarier and more infuriating even though it is vastly more polite—with the NSA no one gets suborned—than CIA-run agent affairs.
The United States has a decent record over the years of espying the infidelities, peccadilloes, and odd passions of European officials and guarding them most faithfully. It wouldn’t be surprising to discover that the agency has never once run a recruitment operation against a European official utilizing even the mildest form of blackmail. Calmer heads among Europe’s intelligence professionals, and certainly among the folks at GCHQ, the United Kingdom’s NSA, which has an extraordinarily close relationship with Fort Meade, know how well-behaved the Americans have been. The Americans and the British had the legal authority in West Germany to surveil basically whomever they wished; they used that authority with the greatest discretion. Today, Frenchmen and Italians, for example, are far better off having the NSA intercept their telephone or Internet conversations than having their own internal-security services nab them, which those services can do with considerable exuberance and secrecy. Americans are far nicer and less likely to abuse such information than are European internal-security services and political elites. French president François Mitterrand was notorious for unlawfully bugging hundreds, if not thousands, of his citizens. Unlike the NSA with its data-collection projects, Mitterrand’s men kept detailed files. The Parisian elite’s reaction to this scandal was a case study in national character. When a book, Les Oreilles du Président (The President’s Ears), revealed who of the country’s VIPs had been monitored, there was bugging-envy among those not illegally tapped.
But national pride has always been alive and well in the European Union, especially when Americans are involved. European leaders can, of course, use nearly-impossible-to-break encrypted cell phones, as American officials do, to carry on official business. If the Americans are nabbing European state secrets through the NSA, then the real story is European leaders’ and their security services’ profound sloppiness—
not untoward American behavior.
But the Snowden-produced brouhaha appears to be much less about Washington’s ability to snatch official secrets than its capacity to monitor the personal conversations of Europeans, especially Europe’s leaders. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s mercurial temperament and eventful private life, and Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s reckless hunger for young women, probably were tempting targets for NSA technicians and senior American officials. The former’s boldness dragged Barack Obama into the Libyan war; the latter’s lust may have played out in the company of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who is capable of blackmailing and even assassinating his enemies at home and abroad.
Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder certainly wouldn’t have wanted American officials to listen to his private conversations (by 1997, he was on his fourth wife); nor would he have wanted Washington to hear his strenuous efforts to back-stab the Americans in the run-up to the Iraq war or his close association with Putin and Russian business interests. The same might be said for former French president Jacques Chirac, who reportedly had many affairs and arduously worked to save Saddam Hussein from the Anglo-American invasion in 2003. A British or Canadian prime minister might engage in scandalous behavior that could have severe national-security repercussions for the United States. But with the British and the Canadians, Americans enjoy vastly greater openness, from top to bottom of their political systems and their diplomatic, intelligence, and security establishments (American, Canadian, and British diplomats sometimes sit down at the same desk and write each other’s classified cables). And aggressive media are there to check the refractory behavior of wayward leaders. More or less, the United States can trust the national reflexes of its closest allies. That is just not true of France and Germany.
Some European states now and then have run operations against American citizens, especially American businessmen. The French, owing to their commercial étatisme, were once particularly naughty in this regard. (Note to the Europeans: The CIA and the NSA do not do industrial espionage. Most big European businesses have lots of American employees and stockholders. American government lawyers would go on the warpath against any intelligence operative dumb enough to suggest that an Airbus “secret” be given to Boeing.)
But European means, if not European will, are wanting beyond traditional espionage. It costs a lot of money to run the NSA. Dollar for dollar, it’s been a much better investment for America’s national security than spending money on the CIA’s clandestine service. The Europeans traded away their intercept capacity long ago, during the Cold War, when they downsized their militaries in favor of welfare states and allowed the United States to carry the primary defense burden for the West. In part, what we are witnessing in this current uproar is another attempt by weak Europeans to gain leverage over stronger Americans by expressing their moral displeasure. Americans, who love company, are always subject to moral suasion from our friends. Understandably, Europeans don’t like being dependent upon the United States even though they have freely chosen to be so. Understandably, they want to have a veto over American actions, which always have repercussions far beyond the United States. Americans, especially Washington’s foreign-policy establishment, rightly care a lot about transatlantic harmony—a point not lost on Europeans. The French and the Germans, who are undoubtedly America’s friends on most issues, want to have the same status in our eyes as our Anglophone cousins. Their expression of shock at the NSA’s capabilities is a sincere compliment: They would expect the Russians to bug them up the wazoo if Moscow had the means to do so.
Giving the French and the Germans equal standing with the British isn’t, in theory, a bad idea. The ultimate objective of American foreign policy, even under Barack Obama, our first post-Western president (to borrow from the New York Times’s Roger Cohen), always ought to be to strengthen the West. Europe is family and an indispensable line of defense. Yet neither the president nor Congress can possibly promise Paris and Berlin that Washington will permanently turn off the NSA’s ears. Another Gerhard Schröder could rise to power in Berlin; another Middle Eastern war could divide alliances and nations. And as long as Islamic holy warriors or sanctions-busting Iranian operatives or Putin-backed Russian thugs and criminals are operating in Europe, the NSA is going to be monitoring lots of communications, with or without the permission of the locals.
That said, the direction ought to be towards making the American-British relationship the model for all other Europeans, provided the Europeans really want what that implies. Even before the Iron Curtain fell, the CIA was losing steam in operations aimed at Europeans. Shared democratic culture matters a lot, even with CIA spooks who are paid to recruit foreigners. When I was in the service, most young case officers really couldn’t get that excited about running recruitment operations against European targets who openly provided, either through the local press or through contacts with American diplomats, essentially the same information that could be had clandestinely. Senior case officers at Langley knew, even if they didn’t put it into tasking cables, that serious European operations usually weren’t worth the risk of compromising far more important diplomatic ties among allies. This disposition has probably intensified. September 11 has brought American and European intelligence and security services much closer together. We should always recall that even when Chirac and his zealously anti-American, Napoleon-loving foreign minister Dominique de Villepin took the pulpit against the United States, the relationship between the Americans and the French foreign intelligence and internal-security services blossomed.
A good rule for Langley’s human-intelligence-collection operations is that if CIA human-intelligence reports basically mirror State Department telegrams, then the CIA station in that country should probably be shut down or minimized into a liaison office if such contact with the local intelligence or security service is valuable. With more flexibility, the same rule should be applied to NSA collection operations against individual European targets. Using that criterion, targeting German chancellor Angela Merkel would most probably end. (President Obama, if he’s not done it already, should review her file.)
NSA metadata-collection efforts in Europe are a different issue. Washington must demonstrate convincingly, at least to our elected representatives, that these programs, which probably touch Americans at least as much as Europeans, work. The NSA has not yet publicly presented a compelling case that sucking up data on billions of telephone calls makes American counterterrorism appreciably more effective. If one examined individual counterterrorist cases closely, it wouldn’t be surprising to discover that the counterterrorism logarithms beloved by the NSA were less decisive in thwarting holy warriors than the director of national intelligence and the head of the NSA have claimed. Americans love their technology for cause: Using gadgets, whether it be drones or eavesdropping dishes on the roofs of American embassies and consulates, is much less disruptive and vulnerable than their human alternatives.
If metadata collection is a valuable counterterrorist tool, then it ought to be fairly straightforward to demonstrate its efficacy to French and German intelligence and security services, and through them to French and German elected officials. Serious European politicians think a lot about Islamic radicalism (the French internal-security service, the DST, has been unrivaled in thwarting potentially lethal plots). French public opinion is certainly winnable on this issue if the French elite is won. The Germans—who are more goosey because of their history, and in whom anti-Americanism runs deeper than among the French—will be tougher to assuage. But the Snowden-produced public-relations disaster of metadata collection may be far easier to solve than it presently appears—provided the NSA is more forthcoming about its methods.
Washington should resist much of the European and American criticism of the NSA, which is an updated version of Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson’s criticism of America’s first attempt at communications intelligence (the U.S. Army’s “Black Chamber” outfit after World War I): “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” Democratic elections in Europe don’t necessarily place in office gentlemen or gentlewomen who agree with America on really big issues. Gentlemen can also be surrounded by rogues. Gentlemen can also be stupid. Despite its possible excesses, which should be rigorously checked by our elected representatives, the NSA is a national treasure built at great expense. We should not allow envy, fraternity, or paranoia to turn off its ears. Our enemies are out there. Some of them intend us great harm.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.