In 2008, then-senator Barack Obama spoke to an adoring crowd in Berlin’s Tiergarten Park. Obama called for a “true partnership” between America and Europe. “Most of all, [we must] trust each other,” he said. Across Europe, the reaction was one of near ecstasy. The president-to-be seemed to embody the anti-Bush: deferential, fashionable, and liberal. A European-style American.
Edward Snowden’s revelations changed all that.
Facing reports that the NSA has been monitoring the communications of chancellors and citizens alike, the EU is calling for an intelligence conference with the United States. According to the BBC, France and Germany will demand an EU “no-spying” pact, one similar to the longstanding agreement between the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, and New Zealand (a.k.a. “Five Eyes”).
On paper it seems sensible enough. The U.S. is supposed to be a friend of the EU — surely it makes sense to codify a relationship of trust?
In fact, it makes no sense. There are three key reasons why.
First, such an agreement would ignore the reality of U.S.-EU counter-terrorism efforts.
At a basic level, the EU and the U.S. embrace counter-terrorism strategies that are unified in purpose (preventing attacks) but divergent in approach. On the EU side, the majority of counter-terrorism operations take place under a law-enforcement orbit. In Europe and abroad, EU intelligence operations are generally limited to “cycling” information on a terrorist network’s capabilities and intentions. Conversely, the U.S. government orients its counter-terrorism strategy under a far more aggressive methodology. One day we see arrests by the FBI (law enforcement), but the next day we read about drone strikes by the CIA in Yemen, Pakistan, or elsewhere (intelligence/covert action). The next day we hear about a Special Forces operation in Somalia or Libya (military/direct action). Every day we suspect that things happen of which we hear nothing. Where America subscribes to a “war” mentality, the Europeans take pride in their criminal-justice mentality.
It’s crucial that we recognize this reality; after all, it has caused serious tensions even between the U.K. and the U.S. At the defining level, EU states are far more willing to tolerate terrorist elements in their midst. Instead of “taking down” terrorist networks — a choice that would inevitably require revealing sources and methods in a civilian court — EU authorities often attempt to recruit extremists as “double agent” assets (sometimes failing disastrously), conduct surveillance operations, and hope for the best. Nevertheless, with limited resources and facing a large number of suspects, the EU paradigm cannot satisfy U.S. national-security imperatives. The simple fact is that the U.S. intelligence community has the resources to see through the cracks — to find the plots that have not yet been found. Travel to the United States is not complex for anyone possessing a European passport. The U.S. must do everything possible to protect the American people.
To be sure, this isn’t solely about confronting terrorists per se. At present, EU ransom money provides a major source of funding for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This is the same organization that nearly succeeded in bringing down a passenger plane packed with innocent civilians. Even if reluctantly, EU states are directly funding terrorism. They require attention.
Second, healthy American democracy requires informed leadership.
Consider the continuing economic difficulties in Europe — a crisis of profound importance to the global economy and thus to the United States. By understanding what’s happening in EU budget negotiations, U.S. policymakers have the opportunity to make better decisions.
Intelligence collection on EU business transactions also informs policymaker awareness. Take an example from 2003. In the prelude to the Iraq War, many French companies maintained lucrative relationships with Saddam Hussein’s regime. Of course, the French government had little interest in broadcasting these interests — it was easier to claim moral purity. Still, intelligence on French duplicity afforded U.S. policymakers the knowledge that the sanctions regime was crumbling.
This is an ongoing problem. Even today, German banks grease Iran’s nuclear development.
Third, the U.S. government must protect against EU intelligence operations targeting American interests. Let’s be serious; whatever French president François Hollande might claim, an appraisal of longstanding history strongly suggests that France wouldn’t live up to the deal. Indeed, French intelligence is masterful at manipulating French law.
Ultimately, effective intelligence collection must balance prospective knowledge against the risk of blowback. German chancellor Angela Merkel encapsulates this truth. In the end, however, intelligence collection is only a metaphor for a larger truth: States act in their own interests, and in this vein, spying makes sense. The United States has a compelling array of reasons to spy in Europe. Yes, building trust with EU states makes sense for all parties involved. Yet until those relationships can claim a history of implicit trust vindicated by explicit action — the kind of trust that underpins the Five Eyes alliance — America must continue to spy on Europe.