Listening to friends


John Kerry was not formally confirming or denying anything. But the US Secretary of State yesterday as good as admitted that, shock, horror, yes, the US does engage in the dark arts, that spying and bugging, are things everyone does. “Chill out,” he seemed to be saying to allies, “no big deal.” “I will say that every country in the world that is engaged in international affairs and national security undertakes lots of activities to protect its national security and all kinds of information contributes to that. All I know is that is not unusual for lots of nations.” Former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden downplayed European outrage, saying they “should look first and find out what their own governments are doing.”

So that’s OK then? No problem. Realpolitik.

No. Quite apart from the fact that the US operates to a different, far looser, and quite unacceptable standard when invading the privacy of mere non-citizen foreigners, its bugging of EU diplomatic missions and the missions of Germany, Italy, France, Luxembourg and others is a deeply counterproductive operation that must inevitably jeopardise healthy relationships and dialogue between friendly nations. Such dialogue is founded above all on trust and good faith. That means what lawyers call an “equality of arms” in talking to each other, and, necessarily, restraint on the part of the technologically superior.

If we know in a game of poker between friends, that one of them is capable of sneaking a surreptitious look at our cards, the game becomes impossible once he is exposed as doing so systematically. And, as for sitting down to another hand ...

“Partners do not spy on each other,” EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding argues, warning of the danger to crucial EU-US trade talks whose opening the Irish EU Presidency has just brokered. “We cannot negotiate over a big trans-Atlantic market if there is the slightest doubt that our partners are carrying out spying activities on the offices of our negotiators. The American authorities should eliminate any such doubt swiftly.”

Others see the US surveillance as akin to the Cold War, an apt comparison in the context of what is going on in Germany where, according to Der Spiegel, the NSA taps half a billion phone calls, emails and text messages in a typical month, much more than any other European peer. And leaving former East Germany’s Stasi in the shade. Yet, these are not “enemies” , and certainly no threat to the security of the US.

US securocrats, delighted with their technological wizardry and their almost infinite ability to explore and mine the cyberworld, have drawn politicians, still dazzled by 9/11 and the war against terrorism, into underwriting their surveillance society. But, just because it can be done, does not mean it should. It is time for President Obama to call a halt.