Sacre bleu! France summons US ambassador over NSA surveillance of past three presidents

The files of Edward Snowden continue to bring all sorts of damage to US intelligence and diplomacy. First came the documents that showed US intelligence had conducted surveillance in Germany, which led to months of strained diplomacy. Today it’s France’s turn to act shocked, shocked that its friends listen in on its sensitive communications:

The French government reacted with anger on Wednesday to revelations about extensive eavesdropping by the United States government on the private conversations of senior French leaders, including three presidents and dozens of senior government figures.

President François Hollande called an emergency meeting of the Defense Council on Wednesday morning to discuss the revelations published by the French news websiteMediapart and the left-leaning newspaper Libération about spying by the National Security Agency. In a spare but strongly worded statement released after the meeting, the government said the behavior was “unacceptable” and that it would not “tolerate any actions that put French security and the protection of French interests in danger.”

The new information, this time regarding French officials, appears to come from the WikiLeaks trove of documents released by the former N.S.A. contractor Edward J. Snowden, and is from the period 2006 to 2012. Julian Assange, a co-founder of WikiLeaks, is listed as one of the authors of the Mediapart and Libération articles.

This is the second time that WikiLeaks revelations have upended American diplomatic ties with a close ally. Relations between Washington and Berlin cooled significantly after reports in October 2013 accused the N.S.A. of monitoring one of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphones, although Germany’s federal prosecutor dropped a formal investigation this month because of a lack of evidence.

They’re shocked enough to demand an explanation from the US ambassador, using the formal mechanism of diplomatic anger — the summons:

France summoned the U.S. ambassador to the Foreign Ministry and the French president held a high-level emergency meeting Wednesday following revelations by WikiLeaks that the U.S. National Security Agency had eavesdropped on the past three French presidents. …

U.S. Ambassador Jane Hartley was summoned to the French Foreign Ministry, according to government spokesman Stephane Le Foll. Hollande is also sending France’s top intelligence coordinator to the United States shortly, to ensure that promises made after earlier NSA spying revelations in 2013 and 2014 have been kept, Le Foll said.

Calling the spying “incomprehensible,” Le Foll told reporters “France does not listen in on its allies.”

Mon Dieu! France has a short institutional memory. For years, France conducted high-intensity industrial espionage against its European allies, a situation also revealed by Wikileaks in 2011. The US at that time considered French espionage to cause more damage than either China or Russia:

France is the country that conducts the most industrial espionage on other European countries, even ahead of China and Russia, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, reported in a translation by Agence France Presse of Norwegian daily Aftenposten’s reporting.

“French espionage is so widespread that the damages (it causes) the German economy are larger as a whole than those caused by China or Russia,” an undated note from the U.S. embassy in Berlin said.

In October, 2009, Berry Smutny, the head of German satellite company OHB Technology, is quoted in the diplomatic note as saying: “France is the Empire of Evil in terms of technology theft, and Germany knows it.”

The NSA’s job is to surveil foreign communications for intelligence. As John Kerry said at the time, this “is not unusual for lots of nations,” especially one on which nations like France and Germany rely heavily for international security. The role of global policeman saves those nations from redirecting their own wealth into security rather than social welfare and bailouts of other European nations. Besides, these shocked, shocked nations also conduct their own intel operations, and it would be silly and naïve beyond belief to think that they don’t conduct intelligence gathering efforts about the US and its policy decisions, too.

The key is not getting caught and embarrassing everyone into demonstrations of anger and sanctimony. That brings us back to Edward Snowden and the ongoing leaks from American intelligence operations. While the argument that Snowden had to abscond with this data to expose domestic-surveillance abuses and he did a service to Americans and their privacy by doing so is strong (although still debatable), there isn’t much of an argument for exposing the legitimate collection of foreign intelligence for which NSA and other agencies are commissioned. These releases seem calculated to do unnecessary damage to the US rather than push for any specific reforms.