I’m … outraged?

Today’s news has nothing to do with Snowden’s alleged goal of awakening Americans to violations of their civil liberties by the U.S. government, but that’s par for the course. One of the early scoops to come from his cache this summer was the fact that the NSA had bugged Medvedev’s communications at the G20 back in 2009. That was the first clue after the initial uproar over PRISM that, for all his rhetoric, this wasn’t just about protecting his countrymen’s privacy. I wonder if that’s even what it’s mainly about. The revelations about domestic data-mining have been less of a headache for the White House on balance than the fallout internationally over NSA spying on allies like Angela Merkel, but Snowden couldn’t get away with the latter if he wasn’t also responsible for the former. His image as a whistleblower is built on the domestic stuff, which in turn generates political capital he can spend on the foreign stuff. That’s why, I think, instead of rushing out all the big scoops about what the NSA is doing to Americans, his media contacts dribble them out piecemeal and sporadically. They’re friendly reminders, amid the attempts to damage U.S. diplomatic relations with European and South American nations, that Snowden’s supposedly On Your Side.

The confidential memo reveals that the NSA encourages senior officials in its “customer” departments, such the White House, State and the Pentagon, to share their “Rolodexes” so the agency can add the phone numbers of leading foreign politicians to their surveillance systems…

“In one recent case,” the [2006] memo notes, “a US official provided NSA with 200 phone numbers to 35 world leaders … Despite the fact that the majority is probably available via open source, the PCs [intelligence production centers] have noted 43 previously unknown phone numbers. These numbers plus several others have been tasked.”…

But the memo acknowledges that eavesdropping on the numbers had produced “little reportable intelligence”. In the wake of the Merkel row, the US is facing growing international criticism that any intelligence benefit from spying on friendly governments is far outweighed by the potential diplomatic damage.

Given how the NSA’s technological capabilities have grown over time, I’d be surprised if they’re not monitoring the calls of every world leader on Earth by now. Which would be a terrible thing, because … why? Lefty Peter Beinart has a nifty bit of concern-trolling at the Daily Beat about how dastardly right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh would be outraged at Germany if they got caught tapping the White House’s phones whereas they’re completely sanguine about the fact that we’re tapping Merkel’s. Even if that were true, which it’s not, so what? Go figure that Americans want an informational advantage for America over everyone else, allies included. But as I say, it’s not true. If the White House left itself that vulnerable, most public outrage here at home would be aimed at the NSA and CIA for failing so badly at counterespionage, not at the Germans for engaging in it. China’s hard at work each day hacking or trying to hack every computer in America, but no one on either side is pounding the table to bomb Beijing over it. They’re spying; that’s what spies do. I hope/trust that the NSA’s mining everything China has in return, in real time if possible. Arguably the calculus is different when friendly nations spy on each other since the alliance depends to some degree on trust, and aggressive spying might jeopardize that trust. Even there, though, says Marc Ambinder, why be surprised that an intelligence agency would risk it? Gathering information is their job, and the more exclusive that information is, the more theoretically valuable it’ll likely be.

The NSA also collects strategic intelligence. It must, because the United States does not have the freedom to act without consequences, and without, in many cases, the aid and acquiescence of allies. Make no mistake: For the NSA, giving the U.S. president valuable information to the exclusion of every other country and leader in the world is not a morally ambiguous goal. It’s the goal. It’s not controversial.

In order to map out out the geopolitical space within which the president will act, he needs to have solid intelligence, a good guesstimate, on what other countries are going to do and how they will respond to whatever he decides to do. The president wages war, conducts diplomacy negotiates economic treaties, imposes sanctions, and works to promote U.S. interests abroad. Strategic intelligence should inform all of these decisions, not simply those that involve the military.

It’s one thing to say that the United States’ actions don’t always match up with the values we espouse, and that’s true. When our hypocrisy is exposed, our moral authority wanes and our ability to maneuver is reduced.

It’s quite another to assume that other countries are any purer. They never have been and probably won’t be.

It’s “icky” that we use the same methods to spy on friends like Merkel as we do enemies, says Ambinder, but whether ickiness ever would or ever should deter an intelligence bureau from maximizing its informational advantage is a separate matter. If anything, the White House and the NSA are in the same position here as they are in handling counterterrorism, where political incentives force the feds to err on the side of aggressiveness lest they be seen in the aftermath of a major intelligence failure as not having done everything they could to prevent it. To me, the most revealing bit from today’s Guardian report is how little value the NSA apparently found in listening in on foreign leaders’ calls; that makes me wonder whether, as standard counterespionage practice, those leaders have been guarding what they say because they already suspect there might be eavesdroppers in the digital age, whether from China, Russia, the U.S., the UK or somewhere else. No one knows for sure except Merkel and her advisors, but everyone knows for sure that revealing the fact of this eavesdropping puts her in a position where she needs to express outrage towards the U.S., whether it’s sincere or not. That means damage to U.S./German relations and that has all sorts of bad consequences potentially. What’s the gain to Americans’ civil liberties from it?