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Last updated: October 28, 2013 9:44 pm
Confronted with European fury at US spying, Washington is divided over whether its allies’ anger is genuine or a calculation that they can use the revelations to change the terms of intelligence sharing and targeting.
The Obama administration is battling to contain the diplomatic fallout from the latest series of leaks from documents taken by Edward Snowden, a former US intelligence contractor, when he fled the US in May.
In a sign that National Security Agency could be losing important political support at home, Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate intelligence committee, announced on Monday a “total review” of US intelligence collection and said she was “totally opposed” to tapping the phones of leaders of friendly countries.
The most embarrassing details involve reports that the NSA, the eavesdropping body, was tapping the mobile phone of Angela Merkel, prompting the German chancellor to demand that the two countries renegotiate their intelligence relationship.
The administration has gone beyond usual intelligence protocol to assuage the Germans, saying the US is not tapping, and will not tap, Ms Merkel’s phone, leaving hanging the suggestion that the NSA did so in the past.
“We do not want to get into the business of inventorying everything we have done on the intelligence side in the past,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, told MSNBC on Monday.
Interviews with former US intelligence and security officials, who declined to be identified, display a sharp divide over the kinds of surveillance tactics exemplified by the targeting of Ms Merkel.
“Of course, the intelligence services would want to tap the top person’s phone – if you want to understand what a country really thinks about an issue, it is the most effective way,” said a former security official.
However, a former CIA analyst said the growth of the NSA and the scope of its operations had outpaced oversight of the agency, and common sense about the targets it should pursue.
“Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should,” he said, adding that the risks of getting caught tapping Ms Merkel’s phone outweighed the benefits of the information gained by doing so.
Underlying the debate over Ms Merkel are longstanding and deep tensions over intelligence sharing between the US and European nations such as Germany and France.
The US has for decades, and with few interruptions, shared intelligence with four other countries, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, under the so-called “five eyes” agreement which includes a proviso that they do not spy on each other.
“Germany and France have long resented this special relationship in intelligence,” said Tim Naftali, of the New America Foundation. “But the question is whether [France and Germany] would be able to accept the co-ordination of their foreign policies that comes along with the agreement.”
When intelligence agencies discuss targeting they are giving away what they know, said Mr Naftali. “Is the US prepared to do that across the board with France and Germany?”
James Lewis, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the scope of intelligence sharing with European partners, including satellite imagery, was wide. But there are also many areas where policies diverged, which made sharing difficult.
You are 100 times more likely to be put under surveillance by your own government if you live in Italy or Netherlands [than the US]. They are all spying on us, and one of the reasons to make a big fuss is to weaken US intelligence
- Stewart Baker, former senior official at Department of Homeland Security
“The Germans have made a political decision not to press the Chinese on economic espionage,” said Mr Lewis, something that is high priority for the US. “They are the ones in Europe with their foot on the brake in putting more pressure on China.”
Some in Washington are more cynical about the uproar, seeing European complaints as hypocritical and designed to gain an upper hand in broader negotiations about data sharing and the like.
Stewart Baker, a former senior official at the Department of Homeland Security where he was involved in negotiations with the EU over data privacy, suggested the European outrage “may be a tactical approach by people who are losing the intelligence battle with the US”.
“You are 100 times more likely to be put under surveillance by your own government if you live in Italy or Netherlands [than the US],” he said.
“They are all spying on us, and one of the reasons to make a big fuss is to weaken US intelligence. It could also create local jobs in cloud computing.”
The efforts to placate Europe are running in parallel with the White House’s review of the NSA, an inquiry limited by the fact that it is being conducted largely by people who have long worked in the intelligence system.
Jay Carney, a White House spokesman, said on Monday that the review would take into account the possible need for restrictions on the NSA, given that the growth in its technology and capacity had allowed it to broaden its targets.
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