It’s necessary to spy, but it shouldn’t make the news
“Unacceptable,” is how President Francois Hollande of France describes current revelations regarding extensive spying by the United States government. WikiLeaks files regarding France published in June reveal the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) spied on three former presidents and wiretapped two finance ministers.
Just a year ago, Washington was revealed as trying surreptitiously to gather information via surveillance of German government leaders. Additionally, the CIA endeavored in a particularly clumsy manner to recruit a German government career official.
Last July, no-nonsense German police searched the home and office of a military employee accused of passing sensitive secrets to the U.S. At about the same time, a member of German BND intelligence was arrested and accused of selling an estimated 200 documents to the CIA. They reportedly contained details of investigations by a German parliamentary panel into the vast electronic surveillance of European populations by the NSA.
Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble was blunt and devastating regarding the American approach to spying on allies: “That is just so stupid, and so much stupidity makes you want to cry.” In addition to overseeing finance in the largest economy in Europe, Schaeuble is a particularly close confidant of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She showed admirable stoicism in the face of awkward revelations, including alleged hacking of her phone. German investigators have since concluded that report was false.
Today, U.S. spying is being exposed with disturbing frequency. The continuing embarrassments regarding snoops and surveillance are worthy of the legendary comically inept operative Inspector Clouseau, portrayed by Peter Sellers in the “Pink Panther” films.
Clouseau, with equal parts confidence and incompetence, blunders through serial clumsy interpersonal encounters, technological snafus and physical pratfalls, all adding up to potentially monumental disasters. Happy resolutions occur despite his efforts, though he quickly takes the credit, moving on free of doubt to his next bout with himself.
Relations between U.S. intelligence agencies and Congress have also steadily deteriorated following surprising surveillance revelations about actions at home as well as overseas. In October 2013, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was unapologetic before the House Intelligence Committee. His complacency as well as apparent disdain for questioners fueled reform efforts.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., then-chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, reacted by calling for a “total review” of all U.S. intelligence programs. Reports of CIA spying on Congress have further stoked reform fires.
Simultaneously, the U.S. is seeking to restrain intelligence agencies. In early June, Congress passed the first significant restrictions on bulk collection of information on Americans since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The White House has pursued detailed proposals for greater oversight of intelligence agencies.
Yet there is an eerie disconnect between White House statements in response to unwelcome news, and actual developments in the field. In commenting on the embarrassing news from Germany, President Barack Obama was described as having been unaware of the activity.
Preserving “plausible deniability” for those at the top is a well-established necessary practice in the intelligence trade. Today this is not just useful fiction. Feinstein emphasized that the White House was as unaware as Congress of the spying program in Germany.
Spying on other nations is justifiable, but avoiding embarrassment in the process is essential. A significant challenge for any U.S. president regarding intelligence is to be effectively engaged without being publicly visible.
In evaluating the 2016 presidential contenders, include familiarity with policy details, especially on national security.
The devil is in the details.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen distinguished professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.”