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When to Spy on Our Friends

The NSA in Europe.

Nov 11, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 09 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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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.

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