Sacrebleu, You Mean You Spy?
France’s outrage to NSA revelations is a bit too rich
by JOSHUA FOUST
Over the weekend, the French newspaper Le Monde published a new set of documents from Edward Snowden that show the National Security Agency is surveilling French telephone networks. The French government has condemned the American actions, calling the U.S. ambassador in for a reportedly heated discussion … and raising tensions right before Sec. of State John Kerry visits Paris.
It’s curious, isn’t it, how these NSA revelations keep coming out right before major U.S. diplomatic initiatives? Back in June, Snowden revealed the IP addresses of Chinese servers being monitored by the NSA right when Chinese Pres. Xi Jinping visited the U.S. for a summit on de-escalating the two countries’ cyberattacks on each other.
More recently, Glenn Greenwald leaked Snowden documents detailing espionage activity in Brazil (including against a state-owned petroleum company) right before Brazilian Pres. Dilma Rousseff was scheduled to visit the White House. She canceled her trip in protest.
Now revelations about NSA activity in France are coming out right when Sec. Kerry arrives in Paris. It’s probably a coincidence, but maybe there is a testable hypothesis here: see if new revelations about the NSA come out right before a major summit with Pres. Barack Obama or a visit by Sec. Kerry.
As for France, the government of Pres. Françcois Hollande has expressed its displeasure at the allegations of NSA surveillance in the country. French opposition to foreign espionage is especially rich: In 2011, leaked State Department cables identified France as one of the world’s great industrial espionage powers.
“French espionage is so widespread,” the State Department cable reads, “that the damages (it caused) the German economy are larger as a whole than those caused by China or Russia.”
Another cable quoted a German business executive complaining that France is “the Empire of Evil in terms of technology theft, and Germany knows it.”
In fact, France is renown for its sophisticated intelligence services — the French have been caught illegally wiretapping newspapers, engaging in surprising acts of violence in Somalia and operating advanced espionage programs in conflict zones like Syria. They’re old pros at the game, and they know how the U.S. works in it, especially when they share data for counterterrorism operations.
So the French government isn’t really surprised that the NSA has tapped their phone networks. They do much the same thing to track the Islamist terror cells their own intelligence services hand over to the police — and they share that information with the U.S., which clearly returns the favor.
Rather, the French reaction is a part of what’s become a sort of NSA theater — countries with sophisticated, active intelligence services including Mexico, Brazil and France, all act shocked and surprised that an even bigger, more sophisticated intelligence service, the NSA, actually engages in intelligence collection.
This sort of hypocrisy is nothing new — much of the international system is built on states being able to say one thing but do another. But the concentrated attacks on American hypocrisy are something very new.
In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, political scientists Henry Farrell and Martha Finemore explain just how game-changing this can be. “Hypocrisy is central to Washington’s soft power,” they write. Leakers “undermine Washington’s ability to act hypocritically and get away with it.”
Seen this way, you could envision all of these disclosures from Snowden not to be a defense of civil liberties — the documents moved past that a while ago. And it is important to remember: the NSA is legally obligated to surveil foreign communications — that is its explicit purpose as constructed by U.S. law. Rather, they are an attack on the very existence and behavior of the U.S. intelligence community.
That may be something some of the most ardent anti-NSA activists, such as Glenn Greenwald, are comfortable doing. But it should raise all sorts of uncomfortable questions among those who merely want reform. Putting the U.S. at a stark disadvantage compared to its most active rivals and competitors — neither Russia nor China face nearly as much scrutiny in their intelligence activities, for example — is difficult to see as anything other than an attack on the U.S., not a defense of anyone’s rights.
By contributing to so much counterproductive global outrage and distracting from making sure Americans are protected from their own government, the anti-NSA activists might be getting far more than they’re bargaining for.