It is normal for secret services to spy and be spied on; this is what they exist for. The ordinary cynicism of international relations is even greater in these cases, because both sides exist in a give-and- take of information obtained by every sort of means.
On this occasion, however, the annoyance felt in much of Europe exceeds that of previous crises, and points to the need for debate on limits to the scope of espionage. Germany and France, in particular, do not see the need for a Leviathan constantly listening to the world, including the citizens and institutions of the old continent, with the preeminent justification of protection against the threat of terrorism.
In the absence of official data — all that is known is what has emerged in media revelations — if American espionage has infiltrated the EU’s representations in New York and Washington, as well as those of various individual member states; and if it is true that the National Security Agency (NSA) is trawling hundreds of millions of messages in Germany, the main motives of the espionage can only be strategic and economic.
It is hardly surprising that Angela Merkel’s government is protesting more vigorously than the European Commission. With general elections just three months up ahead, Berlin’s spokespeople are indignant at the practice of “spying among friends,” and consider that it harks back to the espionage that went on among enemies in the dark days of the Cold War.
In turn, the government of François Hollande is suggesting that firm promises of an end to such activities must be received before the beginning of the imminent negotiations for a free-trade agreement between the EU and the United States.
The chief of EU diplomacy, Catherine Ashton, has demanded explanations. Obama has promised to supply them, but if he was unable to close Guantanamo in spite of having proclaimed this as one of his objectives, it is going to be even more difficult for him to control the most secret of his country’s security services, even supposing that he wishes to do so. For the moment, all the US president has done is to somewhat cool the hot pursuit of the presumed author of the recent chain of revelations, Edward Snowden, whose fate has apparently been the object of a deal between Washington and Moscow. The IT expert has requested political asylum in Russia. We can only watch and see whether the leaker of this information that has staggered the world will turn out to be the scapegoat of a scandal that affects democratic, sovereign states.
The proliferation of technological possibilities necessarily traps the major internet operators in the tentacles of the NSA, an agency far more secret than the comparatively well-known FBI and CIA. For this reason there is a pressing need for genuine debate on secret agencies’ interference in the communications of ordinary citizens. Europe is not a full-fledged political unit, a circumstance that renders it weak in diplomatic terms. Even so, it has to demand explanations with greater firmness than has so far been used.