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“I think the government blew it!” was how Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg described the Obama administration’s response to the cascade of leaks about the National Security Agency.
Ever since the first Edward Snowden revelations first appeared in June, the US government has maintained one basic talking point: there has been no illegal spying on Americans. Even as new documents have picked holes in this defence, the administration has stuck to its guns. The problem with that line of argument is, of course, the rather cavalier way that it treats the rest of the world. Or as Mr Zuckerberg put it: “It’s like ‘Oh, wonderful!’ That’s really helpful to companies that are trying to serve people around the world.”
For official Washington, the international implications are not so clear. Getting caught snooping on friends and allies is embarrassing, for sure, but US officials are divided over whether the revelations are a storm that will quickly blow over or whether they are doing lasting damage to American prestige and influence.
The initial reaction was to insist the NSA has done no wrong. “Number One: the United States does conduct espionage,” as former NSA director Michael Hayden put it after a June story about bugging EU offices. The fourth amendment, he added, is “not an international treaty”.
Since then, the tone has softened somewhat. When Brazil erupted in anger last month at revelations about extensive spying in the country, the White House released a statement saying that it realised the stories had “created tensions” but that the US was “committed to working with Brazil to address these concerns”. The lighter touch did not work: President Dilma Rousseff cancelled a planned state visit anyway.
This week, after France protested at a new report claiming extensive collection of telephone calls, the administration appeared to give a little more. In a phone call with his French counterpart François Hollande, Mr Obama said that the report raised “legitimate questions for our friends and allies about how these capabilities are employed”. On Wednesday, Mr Obama also spoke with Angela Merkel as the White House insisted that the US “is not and will not monitor” the German chancellor’s communications.
Mexico could be the wake-up call because the war between the Mexican state and the drug cartels has such obvious implications for American national security
Amid all the objections from friendly governments about the NSA, it is fair to say that France has received the least sympathy in Washington. The two countries have a long history of spying on each other. Before the Chinese got into the act, the Americans considered France to be one of the most aggressive at purloining trade secrets, while the US has spent a lot of effort tracking French behaviour in countries like Syria and Iraq. Mr Hollande’s protests about US spying have become bookends on a story in the French press over the summer that suggested his own intelligence services do many of the same things the NSA is accused of.
Brazil can also be considered something of a special case because Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who has written most of the Snowden stories, lives in Rio de Janeiro. Mr Greenwald’s regular appearances on TV Globo’s Fantastico programme would be the equivalent of a Chinese activist featuring on 60 Minutes every fortnight to detail spying by Beijing. They have given the story extra political legs in Brazil.
Analysis of revelations about the extent of the surveillance state in the US
The real test case could be Mexico, the alleged spying target that has received the least attention but where the reports have included the most compromising details. Documents released in September indicated that the NSA had scooped up the text messages of President Enrique Peña Nieto when he was a candidate. A report in Der Spiegel last weekend said the US also had access to the email account of former President Felipe Calderón.
Mexico could be the wake-up call because the war between the Mexican state and the drug cartels has such obvious implications for American national security. A senior Mexican diplomat said on Tuesday that the spying allegations represented “an abuse of trust” and added that the US had promised an investigation.
In the latest ‘Foreign Affairs’, the political scientists Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore argue that the Snowden leaks are forcing what they call “the end of hypocrisy” in American foreign policy, a moment when Washington has to choose between the realpolitik of “all nations spy” and its rhetoric about transparency and liberal values.
If Mexican anger at the Snowden revelations causes its government to put limits on security co-operation with the US over the drugs trade, then the American intelligence establishment will be unable to avoid the conclusion it has “blown it” by snooping too intrusively on its friends. Washington will have to start making that choice.
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