Nations must strike a precarious balance when it comes to spying and surveillance. Too much spying and citizens become uneasy, worried that global investigations will turn local and start infringing on essential freedoms. Too little and countries find themselves at a disadvantage, unsure of both allies and enemies. And while all bets are off when it comes to sniffing out details of nations deemed “unfriendly”, there’s an unspoken rule that says friendly spying is allowed so long as it’s never detected. But new WikiLeaks documents suggest that the NSA has been caught again — this time for decades — spying on German chancellors and French presidents alike. Not surprisingly, there’s backlash in both nations. Has the NSA finally broken too many rules?
Failure to Communicate
According to RT, the new documents show a pattern of spying on top German officials since the early 1990s. At least 125 political figures have been the target of scrutiny, from current Chancellor Angela Merkel and her entourage to former Chancellors Gerhard Schroeder and Helmut Kohl. As noted by The Guardian, the WikiLeaks data contains detailed information about Merkel’s phone number, fax number and contact numbers for her aides. Communications between Merkel in 2009 regarding the financial crisis and calls to the crown price of the UAE were also released, in addition to several conversations between the chancellor and her advisers about the Eurozone crisis in 2011.
While previous outcries over political phone tapping generated public outcry but virtually no legal backlash — the attorney general cited “not enough evidence” to pursue the case — this latest round of revelations may be enough to push Germany over the edge. Calls for reform are even more likely given allegations that Merkel’s staff permitted the country’s BND foreign intelligence agency to assist the NSA in spying on European companies and politicians. In Germany, any talk of unwarranted, invasive spying comes with significant historical baggage. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has also come forward to confirm claims of NSA spying on former Chancellor Schroeder even after he stepped down in 2005 given his close ties to Vladimir Putin and position as head of shareholders for Russia’s Nord Stream project. While President Obama recently called Germany and the United States “inseparable allies”, this latest disclosure may weaken the bond, especially as it comes less than a month after both nations hashed out a compromise over political spying.
Germany isn’t alone on the list of high-profile allies NSA spies are told to watch. According to The Star, leaked conversations of three French presidents has politicians and the public alike calling for an intelligence “code of conduct” which would lay out what’s possible and what’s not permissible for spy agencies targeting allied countries. While long-standing practice holds that governments can collect whatever they want so long as no one finds out, former spy analyst Arnaud Danjean says that “the Americans have been caught with their hand in the jam jar a little too often.”
The revelations pose two problems. First, France’s counter-espionage capabilities are under fire. With such high-level snooping underway, how could the nation’s best and brightest have no idea it was even happening? The NSA, for its part, may have grown too large and unwieldy to keep its own secrets — a problematic position for an agency created to move in the shadows and disappear into the night. With countries now unwilling — or unable — to detect internal spying and agencies unable to guard their own data in an evolving digital world, the French may be right. It may be time for allies to agree upon, and adhere to, a surveillance code of conduct.
Here’s the bottom line: talk of backlash and better behavior is one thing, but no nation wants to be uninformed and will always assume other countries — even allies — aren’t following the rules. Public scrutiny may produce more iron-clad best practices but in months or years at most, agencies will be back to their old ways until someone catches them in the act. Yikes.