Europe’s Faux Outrage on NSA Spying

Captain Renault of the European Union is apparently shocked, shocked to find out that the U.S. has been spying on the EU’s official communications. Some EU officials have called for suspending talks on a trans-Atlantic trade and investment partnership because, as Elmar Brok, chairman of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, put it, “How are you supposed to negotiate when you have to worry that your negotiating positions were intercepted?”

Welcome to the modern world, Chairman Brok. If U.S. intelligence agencies weren’t monitoring communications of the EU and its member governments, they wouldn’t be doing their job -- just as the intelligence services of France, Germany, Israel and other U.S. allies wouldn’t be doing theirs if they didn’t try to keep tabs on the U.S. There’s a reason that staff members traveling with President George W. Bush in 2008 were told on arriving in France, for instance, to leave their BlackBerrys on Air Force One with the batteries removed.

Reports in the German magazine Der Spiegel, based on classified documents obtained by former American intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, started the fuss. They say the U.S. National Security Agency wiretapped diplomatic missions in Washington and New York, infiltrated computer networks and eavesdropped in Brussels.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz said that if the reports were true, “it is a huge scandal.” German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said such surveillance would be “utterly inappropriate.” As they claim to see it, the EU and the U.S. are allies and Cold War methods are unjustified. But the EU and U.S. have different aims in many areas -- they disagree on everything from genetically modified organisms to data privacy. The U.S. has an especially strong interest in compliance with sanctions, bribery by foreign companies and threats to U.S. intellectual property. In furthering national interests, electronic spying is a universally practiced tool of the trade.

International law on the subject is vague and undeveloped. Just as Snowden’s revelations have prompted debate in the U.S. on the balance between security and privacy, it may bring clarity to an opaque legal area. But as Michael Hayden, the former NSA and Central Intelligence Agency director, said this week, “Any European who wants to go out and rend their garments with regard to international espionage should look first and find out what their own governments are doing.”

Faux outrage is another universally practiced tool of the trade, and needn’t cause harm unless governments do dumb things to show they’re serious. Threatening the U.S.-EU trade talks is a very dumb thing. The European Commission has estimated that the deal could yield annual economic benefits of more than $150 billion for the EU and almost $130 billion for the U.S. Perhaps the EU can find a way to be deeply, deeply shocked by what all governments are up to without putting those enormous mutual gains at risk.

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