James Bond spies no more

Between Two Ponds


Bond, James Bond. He comes to my mind whenever espionage and eavesdropping are mentioned. He suavely prowls through the maelstrom of bullets and explosions with the same swagger with which he would walk through a crowded ballroom. What the recently released Snowden documents and foreign news outlets allege, however, is that the intelligence gathering is anything but what the silver screen has tried to convince us of for many years. The desire of protecting the motherland is the same; however, the methods are reckless rather than smooth like a martini, shaken not stirred.

Espionage is a part of war committed not only by suave Bond-eqsue agents but also by quiet professorial men such as Alan Turing — the famed British codebreaker who cracked the Nazis’ Enigma cypher. The broader goal of espionage is to gain intelligence and misinform the enemy, a simple war of minds like a chess match in which each piece may not be what it seems. The underlying purpose of espionage, however, is to combat the enemy, whether it’s al-Qaida, Nazi Germany or, in the case of James Bond, SPECTRE.

The recent breaches of privacy and trust by U.S.  intelligence services are a shocking example of how modern espionage is executed. Even though it would be naive to demand that nations begin respecting one another’s privacy and trusting each other, we need to realize that this is not the way allies and partners treat each other on the political stage. In the name of safety, we have not only sacrificed domestic privacy under the PATRIOT Act, but we also have decided that to soothe the national paranoia, we need to violate on other nations’ privacy with the keen eye of PRISM.

The true cost of the spying cannot be counted only in financial and intelligence terms but also must include one of the key elements of political currency: trust. In the wake of the recent revelations regarding the phone-tapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel alongside the wholesale eavesdropping on French citizens by U.S. intelligence agencies, the response from the White House and American politicians has been both clumsy and tactless.

In light of reports revealing the U.S. eavesdropping published by the German newspaper Der Spiegel, White House press secretary Jay Carney said President Obama told Merkel the United States “is not monitoring and will not monitor” her phone conversations. When pressed on whether the NSA tracked Merkel’s calls before, “Carney said he did not have an answer to that question.”

Carney’s remarks fly in the face of further allegations floated by Der Spiegel, which claims that not only has Obama been informed about the European spying operation three years ago but that he has allowed the whole mess to continue. The full scope of the program enveloped all of Europe as politicians, diplomats and citizens wondered whether bugging the German chancellor’s phone could be a point at which surveillance may have gone too far.

As Obama tried to remain diplomatic by not commenting on the situation, numerous politicians and intelligence specialists on this side of the Atlantic proclaimed that the heads of European states should pop champagne and celebrate the flagrant violation of privacy, sovereignty and law by the United States under the pretext of monitoring terrorist threats in their countries.

Despite the pompous and grandiose statements, they bring up valid points. Security, especially in the age of large-scale terrorism, comes at a premium. This does not, however, justify the breach of privacy and law in foreign countries. It does not give the United States the right to strip the citizens of other countries of privacy or to intrude upon their national sovereignty. The actions of the intelligence services lie in stark contrast to the image America tries to maintain as a beacon of freedom. Older Europeans have always pictured America as a place where freedom rang the loudest. “The land of the free,” however, has failed to live up to its moniker around the world.

Analysts believe Europe’s leaders quietly acknowledge that their outrage teems with hypocrisy because each nation spies upon each other country and on the United States. Despite that, the program of wholesale espionage on the European people by the U.S. government has cost it the trust of its allies and the goodwill of nations and its people.

The pervasive surveillance of allies has given the United States a trove of data and information, but it has also driven our allies even further away from us as partners on the stage of international politics. This divide may further lead the United States and its allies away from each other, and where there is mistrust, there is more espionage.

Image courtesy of greenoid.

Piotr Le writes a blog on a mix of international affairs, politics and American culture. You can contact Piotr Le at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @PiotrLe.