Outrage over U.S. wiretapping of Angela Merkel’s mobile phone has inspired two proposals worth considering. One is that the United States should quit spying on allied leaders. The second, floated by the German chancellor herself, is to add her country to the no-mutual-spying, intelligence sharing pact that the U.S. has had with its closest Anglophone allies since 1946.
Both of these ideas have the virtue of going beyond the inadequate response, “Everybody spies.” Neither of them, however, would be as easy to carry out as they might sound.
Consider, first, Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposal that the U.S. simply stop spying on friends. This, she suggests, could be accomplished as part of a full review of U.S. intelligence gathering. Such a review would be welcome, to assure the American public, as well as U.S. allies, that reasonable rules govern the National Security Agency.
The trouble is, new rules can limit the NSA only so much. Other countries couldn’t be expected to follow suit if the U.S. makes such a commitment, and at some point the U.S. would find itself overwhelmingly tempted to break the promise. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that any U.S. administration could have passed up the opportunity to listen in on phone conversations in 2003 between then German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as they looked for ways to thwart the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
And, of course, a breached U.S. promise, if made public, would create the same diplomatic blowback it was designed to eliminate.
What the NSA mainly needs is a mechanism to ensure that phone-tapping is done only when national security demands. What former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has exposed appears to have been the routine tapping 35 foreign leaders’ telephones. Whatever decision was made to institute such a practice clearly didn’t weigh the benefits against the potential costs if the taps were to be discovered.