Despite anger from foreign leaders, National Security Agency will continue spying


Last week, Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald leaked confidential information about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) activities yet again. Their revelations confirmed what the world already knew: the United States collects intelligence on other countries. However, Snowden’s testimony provided details about who the NSA collects intelligence on, how they do it and to what extent.

For example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been informed that her phone calls might be spied on by Americans, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto learned that people in the NSA might be reading his emails.

The topic has gathered special attention at the European Union summit currently taking place in Brussels, where European leaders affirmed that American espionage was out of control. Indignant governments are now asking the United States to explain some of the programs that Snowden has made public.

The NSA is certainly wrong to disrupt the privacy of foreign leaders and individuals. Hacking into presidents’ email accounts and eavesdropping on phone conversations violate privacy rights and are therefore morally and ethically wrong. However, the NSA is unlikely to change its intelligence gathering practices in any significant way because it considers this information essential for national security. The U.S. government will have to face the anger of its allies and decide on a new code of conduct, but it is hard to tell how much pressure foreign countries will exert on the United States to change its espionage activities.

Snowden’s revelations have made the NSA’s work more difficult and have damaged the trust between the United States and its allies. Angela Merkel stated in the summit that this trust is essential for cooperation between countries, and she noted that the NSA had broken this trust.

“The United States of America and Europe face common challenges,” she said. “We are allies. But such an alliance can only be built on trust.” Both Merkel and President of France François Hollande have angrily spoken out against the NSA’s actions, but it is impossible to know how much of their expressed anger is simply political rhetoric.

Merkel, Hollande and Peña Nieto, as the most important leaders of their countries, have the pressure of representing their countries’ interests and defending their citizens’ privacy. Because of this responsibility, they cannot state something along the lines of, “This is old information; all countries collect intelligence,” in response to the leaked information that has been circulating in the media. Nor can Obama respond to Snowden’s accusations dismissively. Other important political figures, however, have expressed their lack of surprise at Snowden’s revelations. Bernard Squarcini, former head of the French security intelligence system, said of the astonished reactions of political leaders, “I am amazed by such disconcerting naiveté. You’d almost think our politicians don’t bother to read the reports they get from the intelligence services.”

Similarly, Mexican ex-president Vicente Fox declared during an interview that “spying has existed since the time of Adam and Eve.”

Madeleine Albright ’59 voiced her anger at Snowden at a Center for American Progress conference and affirmed that what we are hearing in the news shouldn’t come as a shock. “Let me just say this, this is not a surprise to people,” she said. “Countries spy on each other.”

Current presidents have abstained from making similar remarks, but they might very well be thinking along these lines. Although the NSA’s actions are wrong, nobody’s hands are completely clean. It might be that the United States collects intelligence on a greater scale and more meticulously than other countries. Yet again, it is hard to tell whether the country’s allies are truly surprised or not. It is, therefore, also hard to know how much pressure other countries will exert on the United States to try to get the NSA to change its ways. The agency’s actions have certainly been complicated by Snowden and will probably change in some way, but it is highly unlikely that the NSA will abstain from further espionage simply due to political pressure from other countries, since the agency seems to place a high value on gathered information.

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