In Spy Uproar, ‘Everyone Does It’ Just Won’t Do
Published: October 25, 2013
WASHINGTON — The angry protests from Germany’s chancellor over the National Security Agency’s monitoring of her cellphone and France’s furor over the collection of data about millions of its citizens have obscured a new reality: The digital age has merely expanded the ability of nations to do to one another what they have done for centuries.
Amid New Storm in U.S.-Europe Relationship, a Call for Talks on Spying (October 26, 2013)
But at the same time, it has allowed the Europeans, the Chinese and other powers to replicate N.S.A. techniques.
France has long been considered one of the most talented powers at stealing industrial secrets and intellectual property, intelligence officials say, although in recent years it has been pushed to the sidelines by the Chinese. Their daily cyberattacks have worked their way into the Pentagon and gotten them the blueprints for the F-35, the most expensive fighter jet in history.
The Russians have a reputation in the intelligence community for taking their time to infiltrate specific communications targets. “They are a lot more patient than the Chinese,” one former American intelligence official said recently, “and so they don’t get caught as often.”
The Israelis are well known for cooperating with the United States on major intelligence targets, mostly Iran, while using a combination of old-fashioned spies and sophisticated electronic techniques to decipher Washington’s internal debates, the officials say.
Long before Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany waved a new, encrypted cellphone at reporters on Thursday in Brussels — a way to foil the N.S.A., the German leader suggested, although maybe it arrived in her hand a little late — President Obama got an early primer on how vulnerable national leaders are to espionage of all sorts.
Fresh from the discovery that Chinese hackers had broken into the computer systems used by his 2008 campaign, he waged a bureaucratic war to hold on to his BlackBerry. In the end, he won a partial victory when he was issued a National Security Agency-approved, heavily encrypted model, with his communications limited to a small number of advisers and old friends. (He may lose it, some officials say, if the Chinese-owned computer maker Lenovo buys the BlackBerry brand from its hemorrhaging Canadian manufacturer.)
While it is tempting to dismiss the latest revelations with an everyone-does-it shrug, American officials now concede that the uproar in Europe about the N.S.A.’s programs — both the popular outrage and a more calculated political response by Ms. Merkel and France’s president, François Hollande — may have a broader diplomatic and economic effect than they first imagined.
In Washington, the reaction has set off a debate over whether it is time to put the brakes on the N.S.A., whose capabilities, Mr. Obama has hinted, have expanded faster than its judgment. There are now two groups looking at the N.S.A.’s activities: one inside the National Security Council, another with outside advisers. The president all but told Ms. Merkel that “we don’t have the balance right,” according to one official.
“Sure, everyone does it, but that’s been an N.S.A. excuse for too long,” one former senior official who talks to Mr. Obama often on intelligence matters said Friday. “Obama has said, publicly and privately, that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it. But everyone has moved too slowly in moving that from a slogan to a policy.”
Diplomats at the United Nations on Friday said that Germany and Brazil, two of the countries whose leaders have been subjected to N.S.A. invasions of their communications, were drafting a General Assembly resolution that would seek to strengthen Internet privacy.
The diplomats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the drafting is still in the early stages, said momentum for the measure, begun in the summer, had been invigorated by the most recent disclosures of American eavesdropping. A formal resolution could be ready for consideration next month in what would be the first internationally coordinated response to the N.S.A. spying. Word of the German-Brazilian initiative was first reported on the Web site of Foreign Policy.
In Europe, where Ms. Merkel and Mr. Hollande demanded Friday that the United States open negotiations on a “code of conduct” that would limit surveillance, there is a sense that the steady stream of revelations may give them an upper hand. Ms. Merkel keeps repeating the phrase that the Americans must “restore trust.” One way the French and Germans intend to do that is to seek some form of inclusion in the inner circle of American intelligence allies, or at least for a deeper intelligence alliance.