Anger at the NSA

As revelations from Edward Snowden’s leak of National Security Agency secrets continue to unfold, anger pours in from all sides. The competition in this tournament of indignation is global and fierce, and it’s hard to know who is angriest of all.

European Union diplomats became the latest contestants at the beginning of this week, described in media reports as “furious” and pronouncing themselves “shocked” at the discovery that America has been spying on them. Allegations that the NSA bugged EU offices and hacked into its computer network inspired comparisons to the infamous police state setups of the Soviet KGB and East Germany’s Stasi.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz told reporters on Sunday that he felt “like the representative of an enemy.” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the surveillance was “totally unacceptable.” But Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn clearly topped him by calling it “disgusting” and said that “the U.S. would be better off monitoring its secret services than its allies.”

Warnings of serious consequences fill the air. The revelations threaten to disrupt ongoing negotiations for a trans-Atlantic trade treaty aimed at creating what would be the world’s largest free trade area.

Just how shocked can the Europeans be? Those historical purveyors of cynicism in every area from politics and diplomacy to religion and marriage act as if it never occurred to them that the U.S. might be spying on them. Not like it’s anything new. There was a similar incident, albeit on a smaller scale, in 1999, when the U.S. Echelon program and Britain’s surveillance agency were caught snooping on European industries. But it’s hard to believe that European pique would actually lead them to scuttle such an important economic agreement.

The protests of Russia and China, where the only thing sacred in society is the government’s right to do whatever it wants, cannot be taken seriously. They are simply enjoying the Americans’ embarrassment, even to the point of abetting Snowden’s flight from prosecution.

Indeed, Michael V. Hayden, the former director of both the NSA and the CIA, pushed back vigorously, asserting that spying even on allies is common practice. “Any European who wants to go out and rend their garments with regard to international espionage should look first and find out what their own governments are doing,” he said in an interview.

But domestic anger is another matter. Government officials are concerned about the divulgence of the NSA’s methodology, including passwords, which are now in the hands of friends and enemies alike. That would seem to be a good reason to be angry.

In that respect, comparisons to Daniel Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers are largely erroneous. What Edward Snowden did was far more damaging. The government documents purloined by Ellsberg and released to the newspapers revealed the internal decision-making process that lay behind America’s escalating involvement in Vietnam. It was more a matter of exposing official deception and duplicity than an issue of security. While the Snowden case does call into question the extent of government surveillance of its own citizens, the issue of breaching national security is real. Arguably, not since the Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs passed atomic secrets to the Kremlin after World War II have we witnessed a breach on such a scale.

While that comparison may be overdone — no super-weapon secrets have been exposed, as far as we know — the precautions being considered do bear a resemblance to the atomic era.

To block penetration of sensitive systems by low-level personnel like Snowden in the future, the NSA is adding the “two-man rule,” that would further restrict access of its 1,000 system administrators to sensitive data. The proposal is reminiscent of the Permissive Action Link (PAL), developed in the early 1960s, which enhanced security on nuclear weapons, in part by implementation of the “two-man rule,” requiring that more than one commander agree to authorize a missile launch.

But perhaps those most justified in their anger are the American people.

First, there is anger at Snowden for his irresponsible behavior and — unlike Ellsberg — his cowardly flight. And second, anger at the NSA for its patent failure to adequately safeguard the surveillance system which is designed to protect all of us.

Whatever sins of domestic and foreign spying they may have committed, the sin of incompetence looms very large. Announcement of new security protocols like the two-man rule is their way of admitting that the whole mess is at least partly their own fault without actually saying so, and without anybody having to resign or be dismissed.

Finally, the handling of the affair, once it broke, should be a source of irritation and alarm. It seems that European Union officials discovered the NSA bugging of their offices by reading about it in the newspapers, specifically Der Spiegel. The U.S. should have quietly and apologetically informed their EU counterparts ahead of any such public disclosure. And if the NSA didn’t know about the Der Spiegel story in advance, well, score another intel fumble for our side.

Washington must do a better job of explaining to the public the vital necessity of such surveillance programs, the dangers they seek to avert, as well as the legal and technical safeguards that are employed.

If they are not capable of doing that, then a serious review of the entire intelligence apparatus from top to bottom is definitely indicated.