‘If the French citizens knew exactly what that was about, they would be applauding and popping champagne corks.”
That was how former House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers responded to the 2013 French outrage over leaked National Security Agency (NSA) operations in Europe. Rogers spoke to a world of darkness hidden below the surface of Western civil society. Three years later, that hidden world is becoming public. And in the Brussels attacks and the “Panama Papers” on global corruption, the NSA is finding new vindication.
First off, consider counterterrorism. Warning of ISIS attacks in Belgium in January 2015, I offered a concluding aside on how the NSA supports European counterterrorism. But that was before the Bataclan attack in Paris; back then, the Western consensus was all but certain of NSA malevolence. In those days of cozy delusion, the NSA narrative was in large measure set by
public guardian Vladimir Putin’s new poodle Edward Snowden. Ignoring his education of terrorists in divulging hundreds of NSA techniques and technologies, many in the West chose instead to believe Snowden had saved democracy. A key consequence followed: Technology companies altered their encryption protocols to appease public paranoia. As a result, while Snowden now spends his days delivering Skype speeches to sycophants, terrorists use the same means to deliver murder instructions to their global operatives. After Snowden, digital communications platforms and apps are useful telephone alternatives for us — and digital toolkits for terrorists seeking innocent blood.
EU leaders know they need the NSA now more than ever.
The Paris attackers used encrypted communications to evade detection, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. In 2016, terrorists around the world are using encryption to hide their physical identities — often known to authorities — in a digital haystack of nameless and contentless conversations (Google “end-to-end encryption”). Consider how, in April 2016, the vocal anti-NSA sentiments of EU leaders such as Angela Merkel and François Hollande suddenly went mute. They know they need the NSA now more than ever. They are aware that only the NSA (and the UK’s GCHQ) can efficiently process vast amounts of data, assess what is relevant, collate that information against other intelligence materials, and then pass on the relevant details. The moral potential of this capability is exemplified by NSA assistance in the 2006–10 U.S. war on al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Thanks to creative signal-intelligence hooks to identify and disrupt AQI networks, many innocent Iraqi lives were saved.
The NSA is recovering validation in another area, thanks to the “Panama Papers” reports on vast corruption in business and political elites around the world. Those reports have shown in public what U.S. policymakers — via the NSA — have long known: that many politicians around the world — elected and autocratic alike — are deeply corrupt. And as I’ve explained here, our insight into this corruption is especially important in Europe. Whether penetrating Putin’s global slush/hush funds, or identifying sanctions-busting deals with dictators or Chinese payoffs for patronage (think the Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank), the NSA is the dirty-laundry collector for the world’s most unpleasant actors. Moreover, the NSA’s anti-corruption vigilance is understood by corrupt leaders abroad. And because they are aware that we know what they’re up to, our diplomatic requests to support U.S. policy have a little more salience (think realpolitik without guns). Former NSA officer John Schindler put it to me this way: “NSA is all over the corruption problem, of which the Panama Papers scandal is merely a subset. See the collapse of Brazil’s government — the very government that got so angry about the NSA listening in on them once Snowden went public.” Today, Brazil’s deepening Petrobras corruption crisis threatens to bring down the government. Thanks to the NSA, U.S. policymakers probably knew it was coming.
Ultimately, of course, the NSA is just one element of U.S. national power. As with any agency of government in democracy, it requires supervision. But because international relations are the product of variable actors — the good, the bad, and those somewhere in between — we need the NSA.
That’s because, pursuing the cause of good, we must also illuminate the bad — and occasionally the ugly.