The Obama administration must do all it can to rebuild trust with key allies who are outraged over allegations that the National Security Agency has spied on at least 35 world leaders and engaged in large-scale collection of electronic communications in Europe. Revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that the agency secretly collects Internet and phone records in the United States created a domestic uproar. But a further fallout has come from his more recent claims about the NSA spying on allies abroad. It is understandable that European leaders are demanding to know what limits American intelligence agencies are working under. And providing them with a trustworthy answer could help avoid damage to carefully cultivated agreements to share information on possible terrorist suspects.
The most damning part of the new wave of allegations lies in how these data are reportedly being used. A recent article in the French newspaper Le Monde cites documents from September 2010 that suggest that the NSA listened in on French diplomats working in the United States. The article cited internal communications from National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who was US ambassador to the United Nations at the time, stating that the intercepted conversations gave the United States insight into France’s position on Iran’s nuclear program — giving Americans a leg up in negotiations.
If it is true that the United States is monitoring the private communications of our closest allies not to protect the immediate safety of Americans but to gain the upper hand in economic or political talks, then US requests for such authority on counterterrorism grounds become more likely to meet with resistance.
The international outrage, which comes in the wake of tension over a possible US default on its debts, has dealt a blow to America’s image. Brazil’s president canceled a visit to the United States amid reports of widespread eavesdropping on communications of Brazilian citizens, including the president herself. Germany intends to send a delegation to Washington in the wake of allegations that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone was being monitored. French President Francois Hollande has demanded official talks with the United States on the matter by the end of the year, a timetable that coincides with the Obama administration’s own review of NSA activities. The United Nations may even pass a resolution to curtail US surveillance, a far cry from the blanket cooperation that nations gave in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
The United States can’t risk being on the wrong side of the entire world. It is time for the United States and its allies to agree upon new rules of the road which all governments must be expected to follow. Spying, even on friends, is nothing new. But the technology that the United States has developed to do that is more powerful than ever. It is in America’s own interest to ensure that it is not abused.