Does Listening to Angela Merkel’s Phone Calls Make America Safer?

Why mutually assured espionage doesn't work.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

When I was U.S. ambassador to Romania in the late 1990s and early 2000s, my embassy colleagues and I assumed (or maybe flattered ourselves) that we were bugged by foreign spy agencies. We gathered that what we said behind closed doors — that we wanted Romania well prepared to join NATO and the EU, Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Bucharest to clean up its broken banks — would be shocking: Because we were saying the same things in private which we said repeatedly in public. 

That joke came to mind last week as I talked with National Security Agency (NSA) Director Gen. Keith Alexander when he met with the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs. I asked him to explain the national security rationale for the NSA tapping the phones of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and of executives of the Brazilian oil company Petrobras. His answer was interesting.

"If you want to know the leadership intentions" of democratic governments, he said, tapping their phones is one way to do it. 

General Alexander didn’t say such spying is needed to stop terrorism or discover existential attacks on our homeland. Essentially, he said that U.S. diplomats — who are major "customers" of our intelligence agencies — like getting an inside peek at the private conversations of our allies. They think it helps them do better at least a part of their jobs (reporting on perspectives of foreign governments to the State Department, CIA, and other federal agencies).

It probably does. But how much it helps protect our country is the bigger question, given the costs it extracts in lost trust. I’m sure I could negotiate better deals with my business partners or my Senate colleagues if I regularly read their private emails and listened on their private phone calls. It’s human nature to want to know more.

But, on balance, would I work with them more effectively over the long run if they knew — or suspected — I was tapping their phones?

The answer is not as obvious as it may seem.

If General Alexander is right that "everybody spies on everybody" in international diplomacy, as he said in Baltimore, then it’s conceivable that all the spying increases trust among allies by actually increasing transparency. War is often the result of miscalculation of other countries’ intentions, so it’s theoretically possible that ubiquitous espionage, on allies as well as adversaries, has the potential to reduce miscalculation as well as paranoia. It may even help advance the interests of the victims of spying by strengthening the credibility of their public statements — as my public preaching on the benefits of good ethnic relations in Romania might have gained credibility had their spies heard me say the same thing in "secret meetings" in the U.S. embassy.

That’s a comforting theory. But it assumes perfect spy craft by all nations – that everyone hears everyone else’s conversations, understands their languages well, and has the cultural and analytical skills to accurately interpret what they are hearing. Not likely.

The reality is that some countries will be better eavesdroppers than others — probably the United States, China, Russia, Britain, and Israel, just to guess — which would give them a competitive advantage over less-skilled countries. But even the NSA and other world-class intelligence agencies capture only fragments of information from other governments — just dots which need to be connected, in context, to be useful. So spying probably doesn’t increase trust materially.

And the downsides of the "spy vs. spy" mentality need to be counted too. Targeted leaders must try to minimize detection of conversations they want to keep private. A prime minister may not consult her foreign minister in a crisis just because she’s not confident her cell phone is secure. Our White House will limit its own access to publicly available information on Twitter, as was recently reported.

And then there’s the simple waste of time and money spent finding out — and reporting — what the president of France had for breakfast.  None of that is good for the spying or spied-on country. 

Of course the bigger issue is the value of trust among and within democratic societies. Trust between citizens and their governments is the coin of the democratic realm. By definition, dictatorships don’t trust their people. And they don’t trust other dictatorships — or anybody else. But democracies survive when people trust their elected officials. When they don’t, governments fall. And democracies trust each other. That is one big reason why democracies rarely invade other democracies. 

Spying on leaders of other states is a legacy of the pre-democratic world, the centuries of kings and empires. Everybody was spying on everyone else because nobody trusted anyone else. And war was the repeated result.

But the post-World War II expansion of democracy — from Germany to Japan, from India to Brazil — has brought more peace than any era in recorded history. Its basis has been trust — that France understands that Germany will not attack, that Mexico knows the United States will not invade, that Indonesia gets that the Philippines does not lust after its islands. They trust each other, not because they are reading each other’s mail (which they may well be), but because they are democracies — their people trust their leaders, their leaders trust their people, and the countries trust each other. Obviously, there are gradations of trust, as there are of democracy. The United States trusts Canada and South Korea more than it trusts Turkey and Bolivia.  But, over time, the more democratic countries are, the more predictable and less threatening they are to their neighbors and to America — and thus more trustworthy.

But too many diplomats, military officials, and intelligence professionals in the United States and other democracies, raised in a Cold War world — when we really couldn’t trust the Soviet dictatorship — have not adjusted to the 21st-century reality. Yes, American national security is threatened by al Qaeda, China, Syria, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and a variety of other dictatorships and non-state actors.

They cannot be trusted. They are dangers to the United States and its allies. And yes, reading their emails and tapping their phones is the much lesser evil than going to war with them.

But while we may not agree with every economic or social policy in Japan or Italy, they are not existential threats to America. Listening to the private conversations of their leaders is mildly interesting, but it is not mission critical to protect our homeland. Silvio Berlusconi may have a variety of bad habits, but threatening the security of the United States is not among them. And Edward Snowden, a bright, motivated, and disloyal employee of the first rank, has certainly confirmed the argument made by the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his brilliant 1998 book, Secrecy: human knowledge is extraordinarily hard to keep secret — and the U.S. government is only fooling itself, not its enemies or its allies, when it tries to.

Perhaps because American democracy is 237 years old and few living Americans have had their phones tapped for political purposes, it’s hard for us to understand the revulsion many Europeans, Latin Americans, and others felt when they learned that the NSA was listening to the calls of the leaders of Germany and Brazil. But it should be no surprise to us that Angela Merkel and Dilma Rousseff — who grew up under
dictatorships, one of the left and one of the right — are not amused.

"Everybody spies on everybody" is a comforting slogan for those who haven’t been spied on by their own governments. But those who have been, including the democratically elected leaders of the biggest nations in Europe and Latin America, both of whom are friends of the United States, take it a lot more seriously. We should too. 

As General Alexander said in Baltimore last week, "These partnerships have greater value than some of the [intelligence] collection." He’s right too.

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