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End the spying charade

Michael Knigge Kommentarbild App *PROVISORISCH*
Michael Knigge
June 26, 2015

News that the NSA spied on French presidents should not come as a surprise to anyone since the Snowden disclosures. But Europe’s hypocritical reaction erodes transatlantic trust and blocks the real debate that is needed.

US and European flags (Photo: Foto: Soeren Stache dpa/lsn)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

In the ongoing transatlantic spying charade, this week was France's turn to feign outrage. Paris acted as required by the increasingly battered European playbook on what to do when a new NSA spying bombshell drops.

It labeled the incident "unacceptable," summoned the US ambassador and called a meeting of the Defense Council. French President Francois Hollande then raised the issue in a phone conversation with US President Barack Obama, who promptly assured his counterpart that he was no longer a target and that his country was an "indispensable" ally.

Sound familiar? That's because it is. Pretty much the same playbook was used two years ago when it was revealed that the NSA had tapped into German Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone - with one major difference.

Michael Knigge
DW's Michael Knigge

While Berlin reacted to an incensed German public by floating a so-called no-spy-deal with Washington - an entirely unrealistic endeavor that was officially shelved last year - Paris is smart enough to not go that far.

French espionage

With good reason, because France itself is not shy when it comes to spying. The country has the second largest intelligence apparatus in Europe - only Britain's eager GCHQ is bigger - and is willing to use it. As disclosed last year by French daily Le Monde, the country's foreign intelligence outfit DGSE uses pretty much the same methods to collect mass data from its own citizens as the NSA does in the US - only with even less oversight.

And yes, of course France spies on its allies as well. In fact, Paris is generally considered to be one of the countries engaging in the most aggressive industrial espionage. Two years ago France, together with Russia and Israel, was named in the National Intelligence Estimate, the US intelligence community's assessment report, as having engaged in cyber-espionage for economic gains.

Only China was considered a bigger threat than the trio of countries including France. And back in 2009 a Wikileaks document quoted the head of a German satellite company complaining that French industrial espionage did more damage to the Germany economy than that of Russia or China.

Berlin, for its part, often plays coy, and due to a public more sensitive to intelligence and privacy issues than in most other countries, perhaps also has more scruples in deploying the full arsenal of espionage and surveillance tools. But Berlin also plays the game.

Three of Germany's neighbors and close allies - Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria - recently launched judicial probes into alleged widespread German espionage. The trio's charge that Berlin's foreign intelligence service helped the NSA to spy on them has an ironic ring given the German public's outrage over the NSA's spying on its trusted partner Berlin.

Transatlantic whack-a-mole

It might be an amusing spectacle to watch Europe and the United States engage in a new version of spying whack-a-mole - the famous game where players use a mallet to hit randomly appearing moles back into their holes only to have them pop up again elsewhere - every week.

The only problem is that this charade has real-life consequences for the transatlantic relationship. The cumulative damage done is an erosion of trust. In Germany - until now arguable the country where the NSA spying revelations hit hardest - "America's image has become more negative" in recent years, a new Pew poll found.

What's more, while Germany, according to the study, is the only country where more than half say the US does not respect personal freedom, this perception "has become increasingly common among Europeans over the last two years."

Debate, not hypocrisy

To counter that trend governments in Europe and Washington finally need to come clean on the vexing issue of spying on allies. The truth is that in one form or another most are spying on others as well as being spied upon by others. Another truth is that at least since the Edward Snowden disclosures, every government that takes intelligence and security issues seriously knows this - and has made its peace with it.

But the European public has not, because governments have not engaged it in a serious debate about spying. That's why European leaders instinctively feel the need to put up a show of anger and resentment whenever another case of spying on some prominent politician pops up, thereby undermining not only the transatlantic relationship, but ultimately also their own credibility.

It is high time for them to acknowledge the reality of spying and their country's own role in it. Only then can we finally move on and have the robust transatlantic debate about intelligence, privacy and security that is long overdue instead of the hypocritical outrage over listening in to the calls of one top politician or another.

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