Senseless Spying

The National Security Agency's Self-Defeating Espionage Against the EU

Political leaders in Europe have not been shy in expressing their anger about recent revelations about the United States spying on the EU. Germany’s justice minister has said that the United States’ expansive spying programs -- the United States is alleged to have spied not only on the electronic communications of European citizens, but on the EU embassy in Washington, D.C., and the Brussels headquarters of the European Council, where European states make the key decisions that guide European politics -- remind of “the methods of our foes during the Cold War.” France’s justice minister has described it as “an act of unqualified hostility,” while its foreign minister has demanded an explanation, saying that U.S. espionage is “completely unacceptable.”

These reactions cannot be dismissed with the clichéd response that Europeans are unreasonably obsessed with privacy. In truth, there is a long-running battle within Europe between politicians and officials who want to promote security and those who seek to secure privacy. For the last several years, those interested in promoting intelligence sharing with the United States have been winning. If European governments now decide to curtail that cooperation -- a decision that seems increasingly likely -- Washington will have only itself to blame. 

It is true that European privacy law led in the past to tensions with the United States, which cared more about security than foreigners’ civil rights. The United States secretly required SWIFT, a Europe-based financial services consortium, to break European law by providing information for the Terrorist Financing Tracking Program (TFTP). This led to a major political row when it was revealed by The New York Times. U.S. requirements that foreign airlines provide data on passengers flying to the United States similarly provoked controversy, and difficult negotiations over a period of years. 

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