An Exceptionally Arrogant Defense of NSA Spying on Foreigners

Rep. Peter King suggests we monitored Angela Merkel for Germany's own good.
Reuters

Foreigners are understandably put off by the way Americans debate NSA spying: Even many pundits who object to mass surveillance of U.S. citizens are typically fine with efforts to monitor every Frenchman, German, Spaniard, and Brazilian. Americans may believe that all humans are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, but our notion of the right to privacy ends at the water's edge. NSA apologists insist we must spy on as many people as possible in foreign countries to prevent terrorism, and a majority of Americans accept that explanation. 

U.S. spying on Angela Merkel is harder for the NSA apologists to justify. Germany's head of government wasn't targeted because anyone suspected her of terrorism or thought that monitoring her mobile phone would keep America safer. Germany is an ally. Its military would pose no threat to us even if it wasn't. Its national-security officials happily cooperate with us on matters of counterterrorism. Spying on Merkel makes it clear that, like many countries, the United States conducts a lot of spying in an attempt to gain small advantages in the realms of diplomacy, business, trade negotiations, and other non-security matters. The only defense is, "Okay, you caught us, but come on, everybody does this stuff."

Rep. Peter King could've tried that defense Sunday on Meet the Press, when David Gregory asked the New York Republican about U.S. spying on Germany's leader. Instead he gave the most arrogant, implausible defense of U.S. spying yet. The exchange:

DAVID GREGORY: Let's talk about the spying. I mean, there's a view in some quarters—it's interesting. It's bringing together kind of the liberal left and the libertarian right that believe that U.S. spying is out of control.  Is it undercutting America's reliance on allies for cooperation on anything from economic reform to chasing terrorists? Does it have to be reined in?

REP. PETER KING: Now, first of all, David, I think the president should stop apologizing, stop being defensive. The reality is the N.S.A. has saved thousands of lives, not just in the United States but also in France and Germany and throughout Europe. And, you know, the French are someone to talk. The fact is, they've carried out spying operations against the United States, both the government and industry.

As far as Germany, that's where the Hamburg plot began which led to 9/11. They've had dealings with Iran and Iraq, North Korea, the French and the Germans, and other European countries. And we're not doing this for the fun of it.  This is to gather valuable intelligence which helps not just us but also helps the Europeans in—

DAVID GREGORY: But, I mean, we were apparently bugging Angela Merkel's phone from the time that she was an opposition leader in Germany back in 2002. Again, I understand why this is done. I cover these issues. But I think a lot of people who are watching this right now are thinking, you know, what is it we're doing? You mentioned the Hamburg plot. I mean, yes, we share intelligence with Germany. They're allies in this fight, not someone to be looked at so skeptically.

REP. PETER KING: Well, first of all, we do share intelligence, and we've saved many lives in Germany because of the intelligence we've given them. And we're not doing this to hurt Germany, but the fact is, there can be information that's being transmitted that can be useful to us, and then ultimately useful to Germany.

Don't forget that answer. It's the latest proof that NSA apologists are willing to invoke terrorism to justify their actions even when the spying at issue is totally unrelated. Beyond that, King's logic is an extreme expression of American arrogance. The U.S. and Germany share a lot of interests. Often, what's good for us is good for them, and vice versa. But King is going quite a bit farther than that. 

In his telling, even the U.S. secretly spying on Germany's leader is good for Germany. You see, Angela Merkel might think she and her country are better off if they can formulate diplomatic strategy before engaging in talks with the United States. Actually, Germany is better off if America has an edge, because it'll make us better off, and that makes them better off. Trickle down has come to statecraft!

As everyone besides King knows, the U.S. did not spy on Germany's leader to stop terrorism, and it did spy to gain an advantage over the country. Admit it or deny it. But don't try to tell the world that if only they understood their own interests better they'd be thanking us for spying on their leaders. It just adds insult to snooping.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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