The reported snooping by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) on world leaders is a rich teachable moment. It shows the underside of international relations. Spying on other governments—including friendly ones—is a pillar of modern foreign policy and a vital tool to protect against modern security threats like international crime, terrorism, cyber-attacks, drug trafficking, climate change, and stealing technology. As the saying goes, friends today may be foes tomorrow.
We really don’t know what information was gathered, but it caused an upheaval in various capitals friendly to the United States. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff cancelled a long-awaited state visit to the U.S. because of the Edward Snowden revelations, claiming that the NSA spying was an attack “on the sovereignty and the rights of the people” of Brazil.1 Similarly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was upset by reports that the U.S. was listening to her cell phone communications; she, in turn, demanded a no-spying agreement with the United States.2
Are we to believe the surprise of these leaders? Bernard Squarcini, France’s former intelligence boss, isn’t fooled. Squarcini told Le Figaro, “I am amazed by such disconcerting naiveté. The French intelligence service knows full well that all countries, whether or not they are allies against terrorism, spy on each other all the time.” Former French Foreign Minister Bernard Koucher lamented, “We don’t have the same means as the United States—which makes us jealous.”3
If everybody spies, what explains the furor over the Snowden leaks? Democracies must respond to their constituencies, and governments will therefore react sternly to offenses against national sovereignty, especially if they expose security vulnerabilities. In the case of Brazil, President Rousseff was going through a delicate time in domestic politics: street demonstrations over the World Cup in June highlighted the abrupt decline in her popularity.
Acting resolute in foreign affairs was therefore politically advantageous. As Fabio Zanini, world editor of the Folha de São Paulo, observed, “You’ve never heard of a Latin American leader losing political points for snubbing the Yankees.” Matías
Spektor, professor of international relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas, added that the political opposition would have used a photo of Rousseff with U.S. President Barack Obama “like a bazooka.”4 In addition, taking leadership on an emerging international concern, such as information security, enhances Brazil’s global prestige.
But in a matter of weeks after Rousseff’s outrage over the spying, it was revealed that Brazil had also spied on foreign diplomats, though its method was lower tech than the NSA’s.5
History shows us that spying has been a crucial part of U.S. security policy for decades. In 1929, then-Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson, who struggled with the practice, closed the cryptanalytic office of the Department of State, declaring that “gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.” He had to abandon such noble sentiments when, as Secretary of War during World War II, the allies depended on intelligence from the Enigma machine to anticipate German military operations. The U.S. had also deciphered the Japanese Navy’s code in the 1930s.
The late Soviet leader Joseph Stalin presided over a massive penetration of the U.S. government, even as Moscow and Washington collaborated as World War II allies. The penetration was revealed by code breakers in the Army’s Signal Intelligence Service, the organization that became the National Security Agency, through what became known as the Venona Project. Venona identified over 350 agents, including high-level American officials working for the Soviet Union, such as the second-highest ranking official in the Treasury Department and a personal assistant to then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Venona also identified the spies who delivered detailed technical secrets of the Manhattan Project, which enabled the Soviets to accelerate development of the atomic bomb and adopt a more aggressive position during the early stages of the Cold War.6 Today’s security threats are more amorphous than they were during World War II, but no less worrisome.
Despite the historical precedent for spying and its near ubiquitous use among governments, there has been and will continue to be fallout from the NSA revelations. However, those hitting the panic button regarding U.S. relations are missing the bigger picture. The loss of trust between the U.S. and Brazil will be temporary; their bilateral agenda is too important for either to ignore. This is even truer of our relations with Mexico, since the U.S. is its top trade partner.
Nonetheless, even the most sensitive squabbles between friends can be resolved with careful diplomacy. After Colombia sat down with the U.S. to discuss the Snowden revelations about alleged NSA snooping, the interests of both sides appeared to be satisfied. Without offering details, Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin emerged from the talks to announce, “We have received the necessary assurances in order to be able to continue to work.”7
The information technology revolution has made the world smaller and more penetrable. Personal privacy is harder to maintain, especially when even friends feel no compulsion to act like “gentlemen” when security is perceived to be at stake. It can be argued that the revelations about spying on their national leaders offered a constructive lesson for the security agencies of Brazil and Germany: they will, or should, take immediate steps to reduce their vulnerabilities. Either officials were too careless in handling secure communications, or their technology was not as sophisticated as it needs to be in today’s world of high-tech snooping. But the most important lesson from these episodes is an age-old one: if you’re going to spy—and most nations will—don’t get caught.