How Does Snooping on Foreign Allies Help Protect National Security?

European allies of the United States were angered by reports alleging the National Security Agency had bugged offices of European Union members. Is the U.S. justified in its surveillance of allies? Ray Suarez gets perspectives from The Washington Post's David Ignatius and Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff of the German Marshall Fund.


Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

RAY SUAREZ: For more, we get two views.

David Ignatius is a columnist for The Washington Post and writes extensively about national intelligence and national security. And Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff is a senior fellow, resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a non-governmental organization aimed at strengthening transatlantic cooperation.

And, David Ignatius, you heard two top American officials basically say two slightly different versions of, well, everybody does it. Does everybody do it?

DAVID IGNATIUS, The Washington Post: Well, from everything I know about the world of intelligence, yes, everyone does do it.

Intelligence agencies exist to break the laws of foreign countries. It's important that they not break the laws of their own countries, but they're out there to steal the secrets that our country, people who run the agencies believe are crucial for safety and security.

What's surprising about this latest iteration of the NSA scandal is its hard to imagine that the information being stolen from our E.U. allies from bugged missions and other diplomatic facilities is essential to U.S. national security. And I think that's one of the tricky aspects of this latest part.

But does everybody do it? Yes, everybody does do it.

RAY SUAREZ: Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, is this a question of degree as much as anything else?

We're talking about 38 embassies and diplomatic missions, D.C. and New York, documents referring to them as targets, as if we were in a John Le Carre novel.

THOMAS KLEINE-BROCKHOFF, German Marshall Fund: When you just look at the sheer number and the size of the snooping operation, in the country that I was born in, 500 million, half a billion of communications intercepted in Germany in a regular month, millions a day.

That is unperceivable. I can't imagine how you can actually do this, how you can keep track of it.

The only thing you can hope for is that they do more of it, so that they can keep less track of it. But this is the complete surveillance of a country, one in every four citizens of the country of Germany per day. This is clearly unacceptable.

And somebody has got to explain to me what they're thinking, what protection of what national security they're actually after.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what, David Ignatius, would the United States want from this kind of surveillance?

DAVID IGNATIUS: We can only guess that with this very broad collection of I'm assuming telephone and Internet messaging, the U.S. is trying to get as broad as possible a data set so that you can then do analysis within that data set.

You learn that somebody who, for whatever reason, is suspicious visited with this person last month and phoned that person six months ago, and then that chain in many cases that people are now beginning to talk about leads you to somebody who really wants to do harm.

An example that the people in the intelligence world describe to me is the plot by al-Qaida to set off bombs in Europe in early 2011, which was broken by aggressive cooperative surveillance. I think one thing we will see as this story goes farther is that European intelligence agencies share in this data and the product of this data the analysis that comes from it, so, in that sense, are part of the system.

RAY SUAREZ: Is that a legitimate justification, Thomas?

THOMAS KLEINE-BROCKHOFF: I don't think so, David, because what would you be looking for in the E.U. embassies? What terrorism would you be looking for when you bug the E.U. embassies, the Greek Embassy, the German Embassy?

There's a blatant double-standard here with regard to U.S. citizens and E.U. citizens. And, yes, it is true that European agencies would be cooperating in this. But we're more than 10 years post-9/11. I think there is a serious review of what's actually appropriate is now in order in the case like this.

RAY SUAREZ: Does this rise to the level where it could actually jeopardize the ongoing negotiations about E.U./U.S. trade ties?

THOMAS KLEINE-BROCKHOFF: That's what President Hollande is suggesting. I think that would be actually, in my personal view, the wrong target, but it does -- from my perspective does need a stern response from the E.U.

Now, in a world where you cooperate with each other, you always, when you do not cooperate any longer, you hurt yourself. So the thing becomes self-defeating.

And harming the trade negotiation is self-defeating. So, if I was looking at this problem, I would be looking for something that hurts the U.S. more than it hurts the Europeans. But it doesn't need a response.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this a one-week story, David Ignatius, or is the kind of blowback you're seeing from Europe to be taken seriously?

DAVID IGNATIUS: No, I think the Snowden revelations as a whole are going to have ripple effects that will last for years.

I think that it's important to distinguish between broad surveillance programs looking at metadata, trying to find the needles in this vast global haystack that threaten Germans and Americans and people around the world, but distinguish between that activity and planting bugs in embassies, E.U. missions.

As I said at the outset of the program, it's hard for me to see significant security gain from doing that, so I would distinguish.

If the cooperation between the United States and European intelligence agencies really is damaged by this, that's going to be unfortunate for everybody, because that interdependence and cooperation has been one thing that has been keeping everybody safe or safer for the past decade.

RAY SUAREZ: But it sounds like that's not going to be enough of an explanation.

THOMAS KLEINE-BROCKHOFF: I don't think so.

I think people over in Germany certainly would now say, yes, we can means now -- now means yes, we scan. And so the trust is seriously undermined.

And there is certainly a difference between popular opinion and elite opinion. There are, of course, the realists who would say everybody does it, but not everybody does it as well as the Americans.

But certainly the populations all across Europe will ask the question whether they're more threatened by U.S. surveillance or by terrorism, if the local domestic spy agency had to do it on their own.

RAY SUAREZ: Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, David Ignatius, gentlemen, thank you both.