The latest fallout from the Edward Snowden saga: The German government is upset that the United States was tapping Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal cell phone, although it apparently stopped doing so in 2010. Spain, where the National Security Agency purportedly recorded 60 million phone calls in December 2012, has raised similar concerns, as has Brazil. All of these countries have complained loudly, if diplomatically, with Spain summoning the U.S. ambassador to explain himself and Brazil delaying a summit in Washington over the issue.
These revelations should not, however, stop the U.S. from gathering intelligence when and where it likes, consistent with the Constitution. The president may well have been right to halt surveillance of Chancellor Merkel — monitoring all communications at all times is not necessary, and snooping on our allies comes with costs. And the president should always know about such operations, which we’re told he didn’t in this case. Despite all the uproar, this kind of surveillance isn’t unusual: Britain and France have been revealed to monitor friendly leaders, too. The U.S. is justified in monitoring any and all communications in foreign countries, as a core national-security activity. Sometimes that necessitates monitoring foreign leaders; it would certainly require gathering information over private networks, as we have done in Spain and Brazil.
Merkel’s phone in question was not her secure government phone, which would probably have been impossible to tap, but the phone she uses to communicate with party leaders and political contacts (she was monitored since 2002, dating back to before her election). Knowing the currents of German politics, with its effects on domestic and European policy alike, is self-evidently useful to American policymakers. Gathering nonpublic information for policymakers and intelligence officials — overseas and not from American citizens — is precisely what the NSA is tasked with doing. The debate over the NSA’s domestic programs aside, this much is clear: German chancellors aren’t protected by the Fourth Amendment.
Germany’s bellyaching over the bugging is in part a political ploy. At home, Chancellor Merkel benefits by criticizing American operations that she no doubt would emulate in other nations if her government could. Abroad, Germany’s intelligence operations, in funding and capabilities, have long lagged those of the U.S. and the other members of the “five eyes” — the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — who agree to share intelligence and traditionally do not spy on one another. In part, this is why it is little wonder that the U.S. monitors Germany and the rest of the Continent itself, key battlegrounds in the war on terror, rather than rely on our allies’ work. It also means that the Germans’ easiest route to better intelligence may be to subject American intelligence agencies to political blackmail. It isn’t hard to imagine what German intelligence officials will be demanding when they meet with their American counterparts in Washington this week (Merkel has talked of a Euro-U.S. spying pact).
It is of course the unexpected, illegal disclosures Snowden made that have put the United States in such a bind — giving allies and enemies an opportunity to castigate previously secret American policies and making it more costly to continue necessary surveillance. But this risk should not change our ultimate calculus, which requires spying on some friends to protect ourselves and allies alike.