Sense, sensibilities and spying

Edward Snowden’s revelations about American espionage have riled Europeans. So has the administration’s response – Published on The Economist, from print edition, July 6, 2013.

THE noun Der Shitstorm made a timely entrance to the official German lexicon this week. France is in a similar avalanche d’emmerdements. So, too, are countries as far afield as Japan, India and Turkey, which are also digesting revelations about the nature and extent of America’s electronic espionage on them.  

Material leaked to Germany’s Der Spiegel and Britain’s Guardian by Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the National Security Agency, says its programmes “can and often do target the signals” of around 30 “third-party” states, with which America has otherwise friendly ties. It spied on, among other targets, the European Union’s diplomatic headquarters in Brussels, using NATO premises to do so. The NSA exempts only a handful of close “second-party” allies, chiefly Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand.

The news that even fairly friendly states spy on each other is less surprising than some politicians may admit. World-weary insiders argue that a dose of spying is not just inevitable in negotiations—it speeds them. America publicly ranks France along with Israel and Russia as a cyber-espionage menace. Only China is worse. Ecuador said on July 2nd that it had found a bug in its London embassy, which shelters Mr Snowden’s ally, the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange. (He sought asylum there to avoid a Swedish extradition order for questioning in two sex-assault cases.) American official responses so far have been laconic, noting that the United States does indeed have intelligence agencies and welcomes discussions with its allies … //

… That said, the material published by Mr Snowden suggests that the NSA’s procedures regarding Americans’ data are careful and bureaucratic: a retired foreign spook calls them “meticulous”. But that is little comfort to foreigners, especially in places that cherish citizens’ privacy and worry about excessive American power. A commentary in Germany’s liberal Süddeutsche Zeitung likened the revelations to the worst imaginable nuclear accident for legality and Atlanticism. Germany’s constitutional court bans state agencies from stockpiling for future intelligence requirements even the metadata of private communications. But that is what the NSA does, in colossal quantities and with in some cases, it seems, German official help.

As the Shitstorm mounts, Germany is sending a delegation to Washington (some think it should be the other way round). Politicians are struggling to explain what they knew and when they knew it. Federal prosecutors are opening inquiries. Sigmar Gabriel, an opposition leader, says they should interview Mr Snowden and if necessary offer him “witness protection” in Germany. The head of the domestic security agency says he knew nothing of the NSA’s schemes, but his service may have benefited from the results.

The fear in Europe is that, once so many data are in American hands, who is to say that they will not be misunderstood, leaked or misused? The information may help catch terrorists and gangsters today, but become part of American power politics (or commercial advantage) tomorrow. European policymakers took a lot of persuading before they agreed to share data on financial transactions and airline passenger lists with America. Now European Parliament members are threatening to suspend the deals. Another potential casualty is a proposed transatlantic free-trade deal, on which talks are due to start on July 8th (see article). France (never enthusiastic) and left-wing politicians in other countries want them halted, pending full clarification of the espionage programmes.

Which is unlikely. America still has huge clout in Europe. On July 2nd, at a summit in Moscow, Bolivia’s president Evo Morales joked that he might help Mr Snowden, who is in limbo at an airport there, seeking asylum from American justice. That was perhaps unwise. The presidential plane then made an unplanned 12-hour stop in Vienna, where it was searched, prompting outrage in Latin America about yanqui and European high-handedness. But one of the countries that closed its airspace to the plane was France.
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Links:

Frenchies are like chihuahuas (Snowden) / Les Français sont comme les chihuahuas” (#Snowden), on naked capitalism, by Andrew Dittmer, July 8, 2013;

Banks Outbidding Private Equity Funds at Foreclosures, Believing They Can Beat Them at the Pump and Dump Game, on naked capitalism, by Yves Smith, July 8, 2013;

Steel: An inferno of unprofitability, The world’s overcapacity in steelmaking is getting worse, and profits are evaporating, on The Economist, July 6, 2013;

Meet the Next Country That Might Explode into Protests Against Corporate Plunder and Slave Labor Working Conditions: Will the wave of global unrest crash on Indonesia next? on Dissident Voice, by Andrew Gavin Marshall, July 8, 2013.

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