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Editorial

Spies R Us

/ 11:40 PM November 03, 2013

That the United States has been revealed to be spying even on the leaders of its closest allies reminds us yet again that it is an empire in all but name, and that American “national security” interests have an inevitably imperial cast. According to the influential German publication Der Spiegel, a classified document dating to 2010 shows that the United States maintains at least 80 surveillance centers or spy hubs around the world. That’s more offices than most countries have embassies or consulates.

It should come as no surprise that, as Australian media reported, the US embassy in Manila, one of the busiest in the world, is in that list of “listening posts.”

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To be sure, and as a candid comment from a European diplomat emphasized, every government does some spying, or intelligence-gathering, of some sort. Indeed, if we substitute “emerging superpower” for “empire” in the first paragraph above, we should be able to see that the same sweeping national security imperatives must be driving China’s government too. Again, it should come as no surprise if we learn that China has an active surveillance office in the Philippines too.

But because of its scale and scope, its sheer pervasiveness, surveillance by the United States’ National Security Agency is today’s symbol of rampant and reckless espionage. The continuing revelations from former American intelligence contractor Edward Snowden have steadily made the case that the NSA surveillance has violated the United States’ essential democratic and civic traditions, all in the name of a monster that cannot be appeased: national security.

This much is already clear. The United States’ standing in the international community has sustained major damage. (The latest revelation about spying on allies came within days of that baffling shutdown of the US federal government, which was damaging in itself.)

And try as US President Barack Obama might, he cannot distance himself from the NSA’s aggressively ambitious surveillance program. As profiles published in previous years tend to show, Obama is actually a very hands-on executive, especially when it comes to the use of military power. He signs off on sensitive drone missions, for instance, and was intimately involved in the operation that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. It is difficult to believe that he did not know about the NSA’s work until Snowden turned rogue.

To be sure, both the White House and the NSA have denied that Obama knew German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been tapped, or (worse) that he had been told in 2010 and allowed the tapping to continue (as alleged by a German newspaper). That’s also what Obama told Merkel when she demanded an explanation for what she called a “breach of trust.”

But even a denial like this is damaging; it paints an image of Obama as out of the loop, ill-served by his lieutenants. And it opens the door for comments such as those attributed to German parliamentary leader Thomas Oppermann. “Snowden’s accounts seem credible while the US government apparently lied to us about this matter,” he said. Ouch.

Thus begins the first lesson for the United States and the Obama administration, about the true cost of breaching trust.

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