The relationship between the US and its European allies is frayed at the edges, with Europe’s leaders now looking at Washington with growing suspicion. This, at a time when talks on a free trade agreement are supposed to be getting underway next week. At the centre of the growing discontent is the storm over revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade near Baltimore has engaged in a systematic and comprehensive programme to listen into electronic conversations of its allies on the other side of the Atlantic.
What has angered Europe’s political leaders is the latest leak from newspapers that Washington was also engaged in spying activities in the offices of those leaders, monitoring their conversations, listening to their activities ahead of the European Union and US free trade talks. The US was also aided by officials at the General Communications Headquarters, located in Cheltenham in western England — an embarrassing leak for the government of David Cameron.
Given the global nature of terrorism and the ability of terrorists to operate and organise around the world, it is easy to see why the NSA and other national and international security agencies engaged in combating these groups would want to mine data on persons of potential interest: Since 9/11 the world changed forever and such surveillance is a fact of life.
However, bugging the embassies and offices of its close allies is unacceptable. This is a breach of both protocol and trust that cannot be excused by comments such as those from the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to the effect that ‘well every body does it’. French President Francois Hollande has indicated that the free trade talks should be called off. Given that the snooping occurred in offices directly involved in laying the groundwork in European capitals for the negotiations, it is hard to argue with his line of thinking.
The reality is that the US believes it is a law unto itself, above those who question and those who should provide answers. Its actions are repugnant to the proper conduct of diplomacy and trade. And that is a shame.