The National Security Agency gambled too much by spying on U.S. allies.
Each revelation about the NSA's spying falls under a fog of disputed facts and analysis. There’s enough he-said, she-said going on to give even a casual observer whiplash.
Edward Snowden is a traitor. Edward Snowden is a heroic leaker.
The NSA was reading average Americans’ emails. No, it wasn’t.
And so on.
The most recent revelations report that the NSA monitored cellphones of three dozen world leaders, most notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The agency also reportedly monitored tens of millions of French and Spanish citizens’ private phone calls.
The White House at first denied the accusations. Then, as evidence mounted, it offered a belated mea culpa that admitted little and satisfied few.
Reports differ, especially between the international and domestic press. As of Monday, the White House and NSA insisted that President Barack Obama did not know until this summer about spying on allied leaders, and he ordered most of it halted when he found out. Reports in the foreign press, however, claim that he knew what was going on for years.
He said, she said.
Either way, things have gone terribly wrong.
If Obama knew, then he is culpable in an espionage blunder. If he did not, then he exercised inadequate oversight of the NSA. The president should be involved in the decision to target the cellphones of allied leaders.
Espionage is part of the international diplomatic stage. Nations have spied on enemies as well as allies for millennia.
There’s a delicate balance, though. If spies are caught by allies, it undermines the trust on which alliance is built. Always a nation must judge whether the value of the intelligence is worth the possible diplomatic and public damage.
It’s one thing to keep an eye on military movements, for example. It’s something altogether more aggressive and invasive to go after Merkel’s personal cellphone.
It is hard to imagine what precious intelligence America might have gleaned from monitoring her personal calls. Surely she does not chat with al-Qaida on the weekends.
It is easier to imagine finding useful intelligence in a massive sweep of French and Spanish calls, but the potential international outrage amped up with such a broad invasion of privacy.
Consider how Americans would react if they discovered that Germany tapped President Obama’s cellphone or that France monitored millions of Americans’ phone calls.
We would demand action and accountability, just as they have demanded from us.
Moreover, the damage might be even worse than just cracks in alliance. Those cracks can be patched.
Less easily restored will be the moral high ground that the United States held when promoting digital liberty around the globe. It’s harder to condemn invasive government monitoring when your own government does it, too.
On Sunday, CBS' "60 Minutes" aired an interview with former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell. He had no kind words for Snowden.
"I think this is the most serious leak — the most serious compromise of classified information in the history of the U.S. intelligence community," he said.
Perhaps it is, but the real damage is of the NSA’s own doing. It chose to spy too aggressively on Americans and allies. It gambled too much for too little. And it lost when Snowden went rogue.
Without the trust of allies and credibility behind conviction, a nation cannot lead on the global stage.
Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.