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Opinion

Bessent: In the surveillance game, are U.S. allies collaborators?

The controversy over the United States' surveillance of phone calls has gotten personal for some of the world's heads of state.

The leaders of Germany, Mexico, Brazil and France yowled in protest recently when they discovered U.S. intelligence operatives may have swept up their call data. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called President Barack Obama directly and angrily demanded to know if her phones are tapped. Obama assured her the United States isn't monitoring her calls and won't in the future — conspicuously saying nothing about the past. If anyone at NSA was listening, I hope she gave them an earful. 

But “the lady doth protest too much, methinks” — and too little.

Merkel and the other aggrieved leaders were probably dead serious when it comes to their own phones. That's personal. But they haven't protested the blanket surveillance of ordinary people loudly enough.

Governments, even friendly ones, spy on one another all the time. But domestic political concerns no doubt compelled the heads of the four nations to make a fuss when documents leaked to the press by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed the startling extent of U.S. phone surveillance. In France in just one month from Dec. 10, 2012, to Jan. 8, 2013, U.S. intelligence reportedly collected 70 million digital communications.

You don't have to be all that cynical to wonder if the deal between allies is: You spy on my people and I'll spy on yours. That way officials in each country could honestly say they're not invading the privacy of their own citizens, while still guaranteeing they have access to the phone and online communications of anyone they want. U.S. officials, of course, deny any such arrangement.

Bottom line? Government surveillance without reasonable suspicion that the individuals targeted are up to no good is a step too far. Maybe if the public screamed loud enough, Washington could hear us without tapping our phones.
 

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