As a US diplomat and UN official, I operated with the certain knowledge that the host country’s intelligence service — and possibly other services — listened to my telephone calls. As with anyone else, many of these calls dealt with personal matters. So, I have sympathy for the Europeans who are outraged by revelations that the US National Security Agency (NSA) invaded their privacy by monitoring hundreds of millions of calls.
How serious is the invasion of privacy? The NSA can vacuum up huge quantities of data, but that does not mean what it collects is useful. Most of us lead lives that are of no interest to any intelligence agency and, even for persons of interest, most conversations and e-mails are of no intelligence value. I always felt sympathy for the Croatian analysts who reviewed recorded conversations from my residence telephone. Even excluding the conversations between my teenage son and his friends, most of the calls would have been inconsequential and boring. Even I fell asleep on some of my calls.
For most of us, the sheer volume of data gathered by the NSA is the best assurance of privacy.
Europeans are mindful — in a way Americans, with their different history, are not — of how totalitarian regimes maintained extensive files on their citizens and, more importantly, how they used the data. An unguarded comment in an intercepted phone call could lead to a concentration camp, gulag, or worse.
It was not only the speaker who was at risk, a listener who failed to report on the speaker might meet the same fate. Even those who informed could be deported for consorting with a state enemy.
The NSA is a big, well-funded intelligence agency, but it has no means to deport anyone. Even if the NSA intercepts uncover criminal activity, if they are gathered without a warrant, they cannot be used in criminal proceedings in the US or any European country (except possibly Belarus).
I have less sympathy for European leaders who are “shocked” to learn that the US is eavesdropping on them. Europeans also spy on Americans and, in the case of the French, this is well-documented. Some have suggested that European leaders are mostly outraged because their collection capabilities do not match the US’. In this regard, British officials have been tellingly quiet.
It may also be that European agencies do it quite well. However, there is no European version of whistleblower Edward Snowden to release their records. If German Chancellor Angela Merkel uses an unsecured cellphone, she should not be surprised that the NSA intercepts it.
However, it may not just be the NSA; I suspect her text messages and phone calls may be of far greater interest to Greek intelligence than to the US. I would be amazed if Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service was not tapping the phones of the US ambassador and CIA station chief in Berlin.
Europeans might imagine that this intelligence-gathering gives the US an enormous advantage in the conduct of its foreign policy, but that is not necessarily the case. Phone calls, e-mails and text messages have to be interpreted in context. When Merkel texts her minister of defense, she is communicating in a form of code. To break the code — that is, to fully comprehend the meaning of the words — the analyst needs to understand the personal and political relationship between the two, as well as all their previous discussions and decisions on the issue. However, the analyst is never someone who knows Merkel or her minister and however good their knowledge of Germany might be — and quite often, it is not that good — this is not the same as knowing the people involved.
Ironically, the more important the intelligence target, the less experience those analyzing the intelligence have. One reason US intelligence on Iraq was so dramatically wrong before the 2003 war is that the analysts had never been there and therefore had no feel for the country. Intercepts only tell you so much, but because the US government pays so much to get this information, it has a weight in policymaking that is often unwarranted.
I experienced this firsthand as US ambassador to Croatia during the Croatia and Bosnia wars. At critical junctures in these wars, the CIA misestimated Croatia’s intentions and capabilities. In making their assessments, CIA analysts relied heavily on the NSA’s electronic intercepts, as well as paid spies and other intelligence sources.
Of course, I saw this information, but I also relied on what Croatian leaders told me and on what I observed on the ground. However, because the US government paid billions for its intelligence, I had a hard time persuading Washington that the intelligence was wrong, even when it deviated from common sense.
In the field of intelligence, more is not necessarily better. To collect, analyze and use the vast quantities of data, the US government provides security clearances to hundreds of thousands of government employees and contractors. US President Barack Obama’s administration is in its current mess because Booz Allen Hamilton, a contractor doing billions of dollars of secret work for the government, gave a troubled 29-year-old high-school graduate access to a vast array of secrets.
The system is in need of reform and the smaller, more agile European services may be a model. After all, espionage is not just about collecting secrets, but also keeping them.