Muller: NSA surveillance of allies benefits national security


Yoni Muller, Columnist

Last Friday, President Barack Obama addressed the nation regarding the National Security Agency policies that have had the Internet in an uproar over the past few months.

In his speech, Obama outlined a series of changes he is initiating to protect individual freedoms. These include limiting tracing calls to only phones that have been in contact with a suspect’s number directly, requiring court approval to access information from the database and protecting the privacy of civilians abroad. Additionally, he claimed that “unless there is a compelling national security purpose, we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies.”

This was in direct response to the news that the NSA had been spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal cell phone. Although protecting the privacy of heads of state and forming strong international relationships based on trust are important, this policy change is a mistake all the same, born from naїveté of world leaders and the general public alike.

The main problem with the change is that it ignores a crucial lesson from history: Our allies today may not be our allies tomorrow. There is a remarkably high number of instances where the U.S.’s international allies have become enemies. One need only to look at the complex dynamics we’ve had with Egypt and how those relations soured during the Arab Spring, and that’s not even the most extreme example. Philip Seymour Hoffman was nominated for an Oscar for a movie entirely about how we became allies with Afghanistan against the USSR.

Although our once-peaceful relations with the Afghani militia did not directly involve the head of state, it serves as a particularly poignant example that alliances are not permanent. We were, at some point in time, wholly supportive of the leaders of Iran and Vietnam as well, and one would be hard-pressed to use the word “supportive” with either nation today. 

Perhaps it is unfair to compare our relations with Germany with those of Vietnam and Afghanistan, as the strength of the former alliance is greater than any of the failed ones mentioned before. Still, millions of people can personally remember a time, not too long ago, when we were directly at war with one another. Although that doesn’t imply that the future may bring war with Germany – a premise I disagree with – it only further cements the idea that relationships are not set in stone. Even today we have disagreements with allies, including committing to unilateral sanctions against Iran or matching our official stances on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is for these differences that spying presents its real use. Nobody would expect to hear Merkel plot to invade New York on her cell phone, but she may well privately express lack of support for an international initiative, and that lack of support could endanger the success of the entire initiative. If relations between Mexico and Cuba continue to improve, it would be quite useful for the US government to know that as early and directly as possible.

Of course, all the practical arguments in the world don’t change the main crux of the issue: the privacy of trusted heads of state is being violated. This is a moral issue, not a practical one, and should be seen as such. However, the important thing to keep in mind is that heads of state are not like civilians. Their privacy is compromised every single day, whether by enemies, the press or the public clamoring for more information every single day.

Heads of state should — and do — operate under the assumption that their privacy is always under attack. Whether a friend or foe commits the spying makes no difference – privacy will be violated. In a recent interview for the New Yorker, Obama addressed the issue, saying “there are European governments that we know spy on us, and there is a little bit of Claude Rains in ‘Casablanca’—shocked that gambling is going on.”

Instead of expressing (or feigning) disbelief at such a “betrayal,” governments would be better served by simply acknowledging that, cordial as relations may be, a level of spying will always take place and act accordingly.

Yoni Muller is a Weinberg junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, email a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].