Of course the Europeans have known for a long time that the U.S. intercepts their communications. It is the original mission of the NSA. If it was only recently collecting U.S. phone and e-mail metadata (since 2001), what was it doing for the last 60 years? What has bothered Americans over the Snowden revelations is the use of these powerful tools within the U.S. — but it shows what the U.S. has been doing abroad for decades.
Europeans have not only known about the surveillance, but have benefited from it. Europeans have relied on intelligence derived from NSA intercepts to detect and prevent terrorist attacks. A public example is the 2006 plot to blow up ten airliners flying from Europe to the U.S., which was stopped in part because of electronic surveillance. The European line here is the same as with Gitmo and drones, where European politicans publicly criticize us, but privately tell us to keep it up (I personally heard this during my Bush years).
Furthermore, it is in U.S. interests to keep an eye on the Europeans. In the short term, Europe has caused the U.S. diplomatic problems. Just ten years ago, the leaders of France and Germany conspired to block the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. In the decades before, socialist governments in Germany played detente with the Soviets, De Gaulle kicked NATO out of Paris, and the Italian government almost fell to Soviet-backed Communists but for the timely intervention of the CIA.
In the longer term, NSA surveillance of Europe is vital to maintain the “long peace” (in the words of historian John Lewis Gaddis) that has extended there since the end of World War II. We are living in an astounding period in Europe. For the last 400 years, European rivalries threw the world into turmoil and killed millions. Since the end of World War II, however, the rate of deaths from interstate wars has fallen to an all-time low. This is due almost wholly to the U.S. and its prevention of the eruption of European rivalries after WWII. NATO was designed to “keep the Russians out, the Germans down, and the Americans in,” Lord Ismay once said. This is exactly what the U.S. has done, and NSA surveillance has helped it do it. The U.S. has kept the peace after the war by providing stability and security to Europeans from external enemies, but also from themselves.
To play that role, the U.S. needs intelligence. It is in U.S. interests to spy on other nations, especially their leaders. One of the problems that leads to international conflicts is misunderstanding other nations’ intentions. We usually know their capabilities, but we need to know the range of outcomes that they will accept; the better the intelligence, the more that nations can negotiate a solution to their conflicts.
The NSA should be listening in not only in Europe, but throughout the world. The peace and prosperity of the postwar period is almost wholly due to American military and political leadership. Our military has protected a liberal international order where democracy, free markets, and open trade can succeed. Better intelligence allows the U.S. to perform that mission more effectively and with less conflict. Ironically, Europeans of all people, who believe they live in a utopian world without conflict, and have benefited by carrying little defense spending, should want more U.S. intelligence. The better the intelligence, the less war.