THE BLOG
10/28/2013 09:54 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

NSA Does the Grand Tour

Last Tuesday Barack Obama called President Francois Hollande of France to explain the National Security Agency's massive surveillance of French government offices, businesses and private citizens. Obama stated that this was a well meaning attempt to protect both countries from Islamic terrorism. He offered to "reexamine" the program so as to determine whether the right balance was being struck between public safety and privacy rights. On Wednesday Obama called Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany to explain the National Security Agency's massive surveillance of German government offices, businesses and private citizens - including Merkel's personal cell phone. Obama told her, too, that the program was crucial to their two countries' well-being but that he would "reexamine" its modalities. He added that the United States was not now monitoring her phone (using the present perfect tense). He expressed nominal regrets and pled ignorance - since contradicted - but refrained from pledging to cease and desist from spying on America's allies. Being the last remaining super power and champion of the "free world' means that you never have to say you are sorry -- or, at least, that is the conviction of the White House. Being Barack Obama means that behavior others experience as offensive does not elicit an admission of error. Being Barack Obama also means granting your security and intelligence chiefs autonomy and never having to challenging them.

The European leaders thus joined Presidents Pena Nieto of Mexico and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil on the list of 35 heads of government who receive routine and comprehension attention from the United States' intelligence agencies. The ruckus sparked by these revelations is a distraction for a Washington preoccupied with handling multiple Middle East crises while keeping its own domestic household from grinding to a halt. What others think and feel is always a secondary concern of American officials who view even close, historical allies as auxiliaries to its campaigns of global management. Will the intensity of the reaction in European capitals oblige them to take more fully into account foreigners' chafing at the terms of the partnership and specifically the modalities of the "war on terror?" Will the Europeans press ahead with proposals for an enforceable code of conduct on surveillance in the face of American resistance and possible threats to curb intelligence sharing? Will Washington express contrition or offer a forthcoming response?

If the past is a reliable guide to the present and future, the answers are "no," "no" and "no." As a preface to the reasoning that leads to this conclusion, we should examine why Washington has undertaken so extensive a project in the first place. There are three intersecting and mutually reinforcing vectors at play. One is technological determinism. Simply put, whatever can be done will be done. The technical resources of the United States' spy agencies are enormous. $50 billion a year over more than a decade buys you a lot of sophisticated hardware, refined software and the organizational means to deploy it. However inefficiently these vast sums are spent, they do produce enormous capability. The logic of the technical systems, strengthened by bureaucratic momentum, ensures that it will not sit idle. Only a fraction is applied to ferret out information about the doings of predefined militant groups who are finite in number despite the generous definition of who qualifies used by American officials. Another modest fraction is needed to sweep up the trillions of electronic messages sent or received by Americans on their myriad gadgets. That leaves considerable excess capacity available to engage in a similar vacuuming in friendly countries. American intelligence agencies employ roughly three million persons, one million of whom (like Edward Snowden) received "top secret" security clearances. Unless data is generated to keep them occupied, staff budgets risk being cut. Or, they might use their free time to engage in mischievous activities.

The niceties of legality and sovereignty are cavalierly overlooked in an atmosphere pervaded by the anxieties and insecurities generated by 9/11 and subsequently institutionalized in the GWOT. There is a sense of overarching mission that provides a convenient justification for doing anything and everything that adds to the amount of information at the disposal of the American government about what is going on all over the world. Differentiations among countries, among specific targets, among threat assessments are elided in the compulsion to know all. "American security above all else" is the motto etched on the psyches of government leaders, intelligence officials and operators. The resulting omnibus approach to information gathering has been publicly proclaimed and justified by Director of NSA General Keith Alexander and his brother-in-arms for defense of the realm James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence. It is popularly known as the "build a bigger haystack" strategy for intelligence gathering.

No one who holds a responsible or influential position in the American security establishment questions that premise. Any conceivable major alteration in the multiple collection programs being conducted around the world would be blocked by this powerful systemic inertia.

This attitude corresponds with the still deeply entrenched conviction that the world system places unique obligations on the United States that it only can meet by strenuous self assertion. Talk of an emerging multipolar world with the attendant requirement of cultivating the arts of multilateralism cuts no ice among the American foreign policy community. Impulses and aptitudes are uncongenial to such an adaptation. Oddly, practical signs of diminishing American latitude for willful action have the opposite effect, i.e. the resulting frustration prompts redoubled efforts to prove that the world in fact is not changing.

EUROPEAN ATTITUDES

The situation on the other side of the balance points to a similar conclusion. However, the logic in Europe is somewhat different. What the two sides have in common in a greatly exaggerated fear of terrorist attack. This free floating anxiety, or dread, originates with the trauma of 9/11 as Europeans imagined themselves the victims of an atrocity on that scale. It was deepened and perpetuated by the Madrid and London bombings eight years ago. By any standard measure, the actual casualties suffered in these attacks are low. They number less those killed or injured in the waves of small scale violence that struck Western Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. Perceptions of the menace are magnified by the 9/11 events and by the ascription to al-Qaida and affiliates of capabilities far beyond what they ever had and, most certainly, beyond the wildest dreams of the fragmented franchises that today carry the al-Qaida brand name. Moreover, that itself makes the questionable assumption that the dreams of al-Shabaab, al-Qaidi in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaidi in the Arabian Peninsula et al actually extend to the West given their local agendas, focus and means.

To be perfectly honest, we should admit that the spectre of Islamic terrorism carries more fearsome imagery than does homegrown terrorism. Alien Muslim names and faces scare us. This subjective reality is an objective fact of life. Moreover, European politicians harbor another fear: namely, that a bloody terrorist incident could evoke a popular reaction that holds them accountable and thereby could threaten their tenure in office. That latter fear exercises a hold over political minds in Washington as well.

Are these circumstances determinant when it comes to unbounded American electronic surveillance of European countries? After all, it is hard to see how the tapping of Angel Merkel's cell phone or Francois Hollande's Elysee line makes Americans safer. It is true that there are other, unrelated advantages that might accrue to the United States government. Reliable first-hand knowledge of thinking about upcoming trade talks, for example, could be helpful to the American side. This apparently was the aim of one surveillance program directed at the Mexican government. Intra-governmental allied deliberations about intervention in the Syrian civil war or acceptable terms of a nuclear deal with Iran also might be of some marginal diplomatic value. On balance, though, these benefits hardly seem worth the cost of alienating friends and estranging European leaders from Mr. Obama.

This appraisal assumes that the protests of European leaders are not just rhetoric designed to placate domestic resentment at the intrusive American invasion of their privacy. It is by no means certain that this is the case. For months, they have known that the U.S. had been collecting their citizens' communication in contravention of national laws and EU standards without doing more than uttering a "tsk tsk." If this week's remonstrance is personal pique, it will not overcome the deep seated inhibition about challenging American high handedness. European countries, leaders and publics, are habituated to a dependence on the United States that entails more than tangible security. Indeed, it goes deeper than any combination of utilitarian considerations. Rather, it is an entrenched psychological fact of life. The "war on terror" has reinforced that psychological relationship - a classic dominant-subordinate relationship.