There is a rich element of hypocrisy in European outrage over disclosures that the National Security Agency was eavesdropping on the phone conversations of world leaders, particularly our European allies and most particularly German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Merkel angrily called President Barack Obama and was assured that she was not now, and would not be in the future, a target of U.S. surveillance. Apparently, Obama has fielded similar calls from other leaders and made similar assurances, although in some cases surely with his fingers crossed.
Merkel is not someone the U.S. wants to offend. She is the most powerful leader in Europe and generally more than well-disposed toward the U.S. But as someone who grew up in East Germany, whose government spied on everyone, she should have been sensitive to the possibility. And as a constant user of her cellphone she should have known, and certainly her security services should have warned her, that the U.S. was likely not the only one listening in on her conversations.
Merkel called on the United States to rebuild trust anew: "We are allies. But such an alliance can only be built on trust." The White House and the State department have their work cut out for them, with the first test being whether negotiations on a trans-Atlantic free-trade pact can proceed, now that European trade officials suspect that the U.S. already knows their negotiating positions.
Certainly, the revelations of U.S. eavesdropping show the need for some kind of institutional restraint. Just because we can do something doesn't necessarily mean we should. The disclosures of renegade NSA contractor Edward Snowden have the U.S. sweeping up more than 70 million phone records in France in one month. What on earth are we going to do with all that? Absent specifically targeted conversations, why would we even want it? The fuss likely will die down as revelations of Europe's own spying surface. The French, for example, have been especially aggressive in trying to ferret out U.S. business and technical secrets. Italian Premier Enrico Letta, whose nation's literature and theater are filled with tales of agents and double agents, said, "It is not in the least bit conceivable that activity of this type could be acceptable." Despite the indignation, much of it surely feigned for domestic consumption, the NSA's excess of enthusiasm and intrusion should not be allowed to disrupt a valuable network built up over time of sharing covert information.
To elaborate on a U.S. public service announcement: Friends don't spy on friends, but if they do, they do so discreetly.
Dale McFeatters is a senior writer for the Scripps Howard News Service.