Given the way the US political system works, someone with political authority would have had to, at some point, sign off on America’s spy agencies bugging the mobile phone of Germany’s chancellor. The question is not who did that, but how on Earth they thought it was a good idea?
Spies like spying; that comes with the territory. Given the choice of using the latest technology to eavesdrop on what someone – a politician, a terrorist, a chief executive – is saying, the security agencies will almost always err on the side of listening. That is why most countries have civilian oversight of the security services, so that someone thinks of the potential political consequences of acts of espionage.
In the case of Angela Merkel, who, the German magazine Der Spiegel has reported, may have been spied on by the Americans for up to 10 years, this was a spectacular miscalculation. Granted, the Germans certainly knew that the US had the capacity to spy on their communications – but with Germany one of America’s strongest allies, they would probably have calculated that friendship bought some protection.
It appears not. The US intelligence agencies appear to have spied on everyone they could: Americans themselves, foreign governments, companies and people. No one was safe and the leaked evidence of the whistleblower Edward Snowden has proven it. The row has rumbled on for months, but the revelations about Ms Merkel are exceptionally damaging. Many of America’s closest allies, inEurope and elsewhere, will be re-evaluating how far they should trust the United States in the future.
The revelations have weakened trust among allies of the US and for what? What useable intelligence could have been gained from Mrs Merkel’s private phone? And was that intelligence ever likely to be worth jeopardising the relationship with a key ally?
Moreover, the relevations undermine the case for surveillance in the US itself. Since the extent of America’s spying entered the mainstream, the US has argued its surveillance was essential for keeping the country safe. But Americans, who are always exceptionally sceptical about excessive government powers, will now wonder how national security is served by the NSA allegedly tapping into the email of the Mexican president, a Brazilian oil company and, according to reports, as many as 35 world leaders.