Gentlemen, Calm Yourselves

When it comes to spouting hypocrisy about the NSA’s spying, the Europeans have no equals.


In 1929, U.S. Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson closed down the State Department’s codebreaking department with a famously laconic justification: "Gentlemen do not read each others’ mail."

Now, all of Europe is in a great tizzy over revelations that the United States hoovers up emails, Skype calls, and most cell phone traffic in its relentless pursuit of bad guys. But for every terrorist or human trafficker, there are a million blameless citizens (and probably a few gentlemen) who feel a sense of — if not outrage, then deep unease — that privacy has seemingly been abolished under President Barack Obama.

Some of the anger is synthetic. When I was Tony Blair’s Europe minister, I was given very clear instructions that I should not use my cell phone in Paris because a transcript of what I said would be on a French minister’s desk within 15 minutes.

I ignored the advice not because I doubted it was true but because I couldn’t think of a more efficient way to convey Her Majesty’s Government’s line to the French. Yet French President François Hollande has nonetheless condemned the alleged U.S. eavesdropping, protesting that "We cannot accept this kind of behavior from partners and allies." Hollande’s trade minister, meanwhile, hinted that the snooping could endanger the EU-U.S. transatlantic trade negotiations due to open in Washington next week. Paris had clearly forgotten the 2005 trial of a dozen Elysée officials who, at the behest of President Francois Mitterrand, listened in on the phone calls of political opponents and journalists in the 1980s.

Traditional French hypocrisy merged with the chance to hit back at Washington over U.S. demands that France ends its so-called "cultural exception" policy, which controls imports of foreign movies and videos and subsidizes domestic production in order to keep the French film cameras turning. The leaks also provided political cover for Hollande, whose economic policy is becoming more austere by the week. Lashing out at the United States — always France’s favorite love-hate target for political abuse — distracts from the growing leftist anger in France over the president’s slow turn toward mainstream economic policy.

But no amount of indignation can disguise the fact that France is hardly Stimson’s idea of a gentleman. In addition to its official espionage activities, France is home to world-class eavesdropping companies. One of them, Amesys, which was part of the giant French IT group Bull, sold its Internet analysis software to Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2007. (Amesys is still facing charges in Paris from a human rights NGO for allegedly facilitating torture.)

France, however, has not been alone in condemning the espionage allegations. Berlin called in the U.S. ambassador to lodge a complaint and the president of the European Parliament, the German Martin Schulz, demanded to know why the United States treats Europe "how they would treat a hostile power." Yet Germany’s own security agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst or BND, is notorious for leaking intercepts to journalists in order to expose its targets. For example, BND sources are frequently quoted by Serb propagandists and can be read on Wikipedia as part of their campaign to discredit Kosovo’s prime minister, Hashim Thaci, by dredging up false allegations that he ran a private organ-harvesting operation during the Kosovo War in 1998-99.

Throughout all of this, the Brits have remained the most muted, despite the fact that it was a British newspaper, the Guardian, that broke the Edward Snowden story and sent the computer geek on the road to exile in one authoritarian country or another. Perhaps that’s because they too have done their fair share of snooping on friends. The Guardian also recently reported that the Brits spied on those who participated in the 2009 G-20 summit in London, including, presumably, Obama. Under then Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the BlackBerrys of visiting officials were hacked and fake Internet cafés were set up in order to gain access to private email accounts.

Since the beginning of the Snowden affair, the British government has been issuing so-called "D" notices — pleas not to report the details of security operations — to newspaper editors, most of whom have been delighted not to promote the reportage of a rival. As a result, the Guardian has had the story mainly to itself — that is, if you don’t count the newspaper’s liberal-left readers, who tend to believe the worst of anything out of Washington, D.C.

The news that the United States was listening to communications in the European Commission, Council of Ministers, or Parliament was simply laughed at. Talkative, audience-hungry Eurocrats and politicians spill their beans over lunch every day of the week in Brussels — and to anyone willing to listen. The idea of some hapless American trainee spook trying to decode Eurospeak sounds to most Europeans like a punishment worse than anything Snowden might face in exile.

Unfortunately for Obama, being the butt of a joke can have serious reputational costs. Despite the hypocrisy of European protestations, the revelations of massive snooping have been extraordinarily damaging. Coupled with his failure to close Guantanamo and the use of drones to kill at will, they speak to Europe’s broader disappointment with a president whose historic election in 2008 was supposed to herald a decisive break with the past. Now, the epithet "Obabush" is in common usage.

Europe is once again growing apart from America. The United States seems to be turning the corner on its post-2008 economic misery. By contrast, Europe — both eurozone and non-eurozone nations alike — is stumbling, rather like Japan 20 years ago. Plans for U.S. energy independence — potentially enabled by technological advancements in shale gas — exist in tension with European’s anti-fracking environmentalism. Meanwhile, America’s pivot to Asia leaves Europe uncertain about its future security at a time when defense ministries across the continent are absorbing major budget cuts. "America is back" was recently splashed on the cover of the Economist; Europe’s economics and politics are more like extracts from Les Miserables.

For decades, Europeans complained that the United States didn’t listen to its European allies. Now, the Snowden saga has revealed that Europe finally has America’s ear — if not exactly in the way it had bargained for. After all, spying on friends is something gentlemen are not really meant to do.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola