Published : 2013-10-30 19:11
Updated : 2013-10-30 19:11
Charles de Gaulle, the French Resistance leader and later president of France, was once warned that he should not hate his friends more than his enemies. “France,” he replied, “has no friends, only interests.”
It would be interesting to know how he would have responded had he learned, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently did, that his phone communications had been secretly monitored by an American spy agency. But it’s a pretty safe bet that he wouldn’t have been surprised.
Merkel herself probably isn’t either, though she made a public display of objecting to the revelation that for years, the National Security Agency had spied on her, along with more than 30 other foreign leaders. A spokesman said the chancellor told President Barack Obama that such spying “would be a grave breach of trust. Such practices must cease immediately.” French President Francois Hollande likewise expressed shock and outrage at the allegations.
But the protests should be taken with a grain of salt. Madeleine Albright said the French, of all people, listened in on her phone conversations while she was ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton. “This is not a surprise to people,” she said of the latest disclosures.
Bernard Squarcini, who ran the French domestic intelligence service, was equally dismissive: “The agencies know perfectly well that every country, even when they cooperate on anti-terrorism, spies on its allies,” he wrote. “No one is a dupe.” There may be more genuine anger among those leaders not deemed important enough to warrant surveillance.
It’s not hard to grasp why countries would want to spy on their friends as well as their enemies. If the Obama administration wants to cultivate German or French cooperation on Iran or Syria, it needs all the information it can get about how best to advance that goal. European governments doubtless prefer to get warnings about possible U.S. action at their convenience, not Washington’s.
Nor can these partners forget that they sometimes differ sharply on matters of great moment. In 2002, Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, won re-election while vigorously denouncing the proposed U.S. invasion of Iraq, and one of his ministers compared George W. Bush to Hitler. Bush wrote in his memoirs that Schroeder had misled him by promising to support the war _ a claim that prompted Schroeder to accuse Bush of lying. The line between ally and adversary is sometimes thin and sometimes movable.
The White House was coy about the charge of eavesdropping on Merkel in the past, stating, “The United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of the chancellor.” But the NSA did deny a report that the president knew about the practice and let it continue.
It would hardly be surprising if the agency had done the surveillance on its own ― not because it feared Obama would disapprove but because it wanted to shield him from blame if it became public. “Plausible deniability” is often a good thing for a president to have.
The public exchanges were part of a ritual exercise that seemed to be done mostly for show. Merkel was careful not to get carried away, saying, “I think the most important thing is to find a basis for co-operation in the future.” None of the complaining leaders is likely to refuse the information they routinely get from American intelligence.
Though the various spy agencies may have to back off a bit at least temporarily, they are not likely to decide that friends don’t snoop on friends. This sort of surveillance, at one level or another, will go on. Governments that want to keep secrets ― including our own ― will have to find ways to make their communications more secure. In a dangerous, unpredictable world, no one is going to do it for them.