In our opinion: Why is the U.S. spying on its friends?

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 30 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

The NSA says it never briefed President Obama on its efforts to spy on German Chancellor Angela Merkel. That raises troubling questions.

Associated Press

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The National Security Agency says it never told President Obama it was monitoring the telephone conversations of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

That may be the truth or it may be a deft way to attempt to maneuver the president out of what has become an embarrassing diplomatic scandal. But it raises some serious questions.

Chief among these is why the NSA would conduct such a rogue operation against one of the nation’s most important allies without the knowledge of the president. Merkel’s leadership was instrumental in keeping Europe from financial collapse during the recent period of worldwide economic turmoil. She presides over Europe’s strongest economy, which has been able to provide the assistance weaker European Union nations needed to survive.

What possible interest would the United States have in monitoring the phone calls of such a strong ally? The Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, has defended the NSA, saying the United States could have stopped the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s if it had been monitoring events more closely. In addition to lacking any specifics, his comments don’t seem even remotely applicable to today’s Europe, where Merkel, of all people, does not seem prone to engage in relations that would destroy her nation’s freedoms.

Subsequent news stories have revealed that other allied nations, France and Spain, also spied on their own people and shared that information with the United States. The Wall Street Journal reported this information, which adds another bizarre twist to this evolving story.

Der Spiegel reported that the NSA operates spy centers in about 80 places worldwide, including major European capitals.

Also, there are reports in German media that the U.S. had Merkel under surveillance for more than 10 years, and that the George W. Bush administration monitored the calls of former chancellor Gerhard Schroder.

All of this paints a confusing picture. To be effective, the business of gathering intelligence must, by definition, be secret. That holds not only for the methods used, but for the reasons behind the spying in the first place. This makes a full understanding of this scandal difficult to obtain.

But the heads of state must be aware of their own nation’s intelligence-gathering and, where trusted allies are concerned, it would seem prudent for the heads of state to work together to collect important information on common enemies, not to be secretly spying on each other.

Perhaps the biggest question this scandal raises involves what we don’t yet know. What else is the NSA keeping from the public? What is it not telling us about the surveillance of U.S. citizens?

We’re sure former government contract employee Edward Snowden is more than happy to answer that question from his asylum in Russia. It is instructive to remember, however, that only a few weeks ago President Obama assured Americans that neither he nor the NSA had any interest other than in preventing another attack by terrorists.

It’s doubtful, however, that any terrorist could have disrupted this nation’s time-honored and trusted relationship with its European allies more effectively that what recent reports on spying have done.

Some members of Congress are writing bills they hope will rein in the NSA. Such a thing may be necessary. More immediately, however, the nation needs to know what President Obama intends to do to make sure he knows of, and approves, everything the NSA is doing.

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