[update below] [2nd update below]
This is my first post on the NSA/Edward Snowden brouhaha, which I have admittedly not been following extremely closely. Lots of headlines, a newspaper article read to the end here and there, reports on the TV and radio news, that’s about it. Certain gauchiste FB friends have gotten all bent out of shape over the affair, poussant des cris d’orfraie, announcing that they will henceforth be encrypting their emails (as if anyone could care less what they have to say about anything), etc etc. I abstractly understand that there may be constitutional and civil liberties issues at stake here but don’t personally feel concerned by it, as I just don’t care if the NSA is logging my emails and records of my phone calls along with trillions of others. A couple of grains of sand on a long stretch of coastline. I have no illusions about the potential—indeed the present-day ability—of the US government to behave arbitrarily and/or in a repressive manner, but don’t see it being realized through electronic surveillance. And what does privacy mean nowadays anyway? If I have anything really confidential to tell someone, I’m certainly not going to do it via email or social networks, NSA PRISM or not. I’m sorry but Big Brother just doesn’t worry me.
But I have now been compelled to read into the NSA/Snowden business, as a couple of students in a Master’s course I teach will be doing a class presentation on the subject tomorrow (they proposed it). So I have had to inform myself and particularly on the European angle—being in France and the students French—and the revelations of the NSA’s surveillance of Angela Merkel’s and other European leaders’ phone calls. Of the numerous articles and analyses I’ve read on this aspect of the affair, the one I’ve found the most useful is by ex-CIA case officer Reuel Marc Gerecht in TWS, “When to spy on our friends: The NSA in Europe.” As he argues, it is not only normal that America should spy on its friends—as the friends spy on America—but there are excellent reasons to do so, and this includes eavesdropping on the communications of allied leaders, who may be engaged in their own dealings, sometimes shady, with non-allies (e.g. Gerhard Schröder with the Russians); pursing particular policies that may collide with those of the US; or may be penetrated themselves by enemy intelligence services (remember Günter Guillaume?). European allies know this, which is why their publicly indignant reactions after the latest revelations are to be taken with a grain of salt.
Gerecht also had a good piece in June on the American side of the issue, “The costs and benefits of the NSA: The data-collection debate we need to have is not about civil liberties.” Gerecht nails it in these two articles, IMO.
Jennifer Sims of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs echoes Gerecht in a good piece on the Foreign Affairs website last week, “I Spy… Why allies watch each other.”
French physicist and former research director at the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique, Jacques Villain, had a salutary op-ed in the October 25th Le Monde, informing the reader that “Les Etats-Unis n’ont jamais cessé d’espionner la France.” But France, so he reminds us, has seriously spied on the United States as well. Ce qui est tout à fait normal.
It is also tout à fait normal for Europeans and everyone else to try to protect themselves from the NSA’s mega-vacuuming of their metadata—as this analysis in today’s NYT explicates—, notably by working to break America’s near total control of the Internet.
Stephen Walt had a good post on his Foreign Policy blog last week as to whether or not the US is getting its money’s worth with the NSA spying—that can justify the massive resources consecrated to it (and that offsets diplomatic problems generated by revelations of the NSA’s reach). And last June Walt had a blog post spelling out “The real threat [to Americans] behind the NSA surveillance programs.” Ordinary Americans may not have much to worry about but potential government whistle blowers, investigative journalists, and the like may indeed need to worry.
Eric Posner, in a review essay in TNR, “Before you reboot the NSA, think about this: The paradox of reforming the secrecy-industrial complex,” ponders how to implement effective institutional oversight of the NSA. The book under review is Princeton political scientist Rahul Sagar’s Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy, which looks to be the one to read on the topic.
In this vein, Jeffrey Rosen wrote an op-ed for Le Monde, “PRISM, un défi pour le droit,” on NSA espionage and what judicial recourse may be available to French citizens.
Affaire à suivre.
ADDENDUM: It turns out that I had a post on the NSA affair back in July. Totally forgot about it.
UPDATE: Le Monde has a page 2 article, dated November 29th, entitled “La France, précieux partenaire de l’espionnage de la NSA.”
2nd UPDATE: The National Interest has a piece, dated December 4th, on “Why we must spy on our allies.” The author, Elbridge Colby, served with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and with the President’s Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction.