When Friends Spy on Friends

President Barack Obama has a very unoriginal response to European outrage over new revelations from National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden that indicate that the United States spies on its allies. “Every intelligence service [does it],” he declared during a joint news conference with President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania.

“And if that weren’t the case, then there would be no use for an intelligence service. And I guarantee you that in European capitals, there are people who are interested in, if not what I had for breakfast, at least what my talking points might be should I end up meeting with their leaders. That’s how intelligence services operate,” Obama explained.

According to a Guardian newspaper report, among the targets of alleged NSA surveillance were U.S. allies such as France, Italy, Greece, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, India and Turkey.

The spying reportedly goes both ways.

Former intelligence official Joel Brenner, who served as head of U.S. counterintelligence under the Director of National Intelligence and held senior roles in other agencies, told the Associated Press that “if anyone thinks the Europeans don’t do it too, they’re nuts.”  

There was not even a hint of regret in Obama’s remarks. The president clearly sees no need to apologize, as he perceives spying against allies as a routine matter, nothing to be ashamed of.

This is sharp contrast to the repeated apologies that Israel made to the United States over the Jonathan Pollard affair.

The Israeli government expressed its regrets soon after Pollard’s arrest in 1986, and in 2011, Prime Minister Netanyahu sent a letter to President Obama in the name of the people of Israel, requesting clemency for Mr. Pollard. “Even though Israel was in no way directing its intelligence efforts against the United States, its actions were wrong and wholly unacceptable. Both Mr. Pollard and the Government of Israel have repeatedly expressed remorse for these actions, and Israel will continue to abide by its commitment that such wrongful actions will never be repeated.”

Though others who were convicted of far more serious crimes received far shorter sentences, Mr. Pollard, who is very ill, is now completing his 28th year of an unprecedented life sentence. Mr. Pollard never spied against the United States. Rather, he passed classified information that the United States had collected about other countries to Israel.

Every day that Jonathan languishes in prison adds to a travesty of justice that has gone on way too long. Mr. Obama cannot have it both ways. If it is perfectly appropriate for friends to spy on friends, then Jonathan Pollard certainly ought to be granted immediate clemency.