WASHINGTON – European anger at reports that the United States has conducted surveillance of allies’ telephone calls and e-mails glosses over a basic truth, former intelligence officials say: Everyone does it.
“All governments collect information on nearly all governments,” said John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, said in a phone interview. “The posture of most governments is, ‘We want to collect as much info as we can, so we can be as fluent as we can when we make decisions.’ It’s just what governments do.”
The Obama administration has been dogged this week by a series of disclosures detailing allegations of U.S. surveillance of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s private mobile phone, of former Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s e-mail while in office, and of the collection of data on ordinary French citizens.
Government surveillance has a sinister resonance in Europe and news about U.S. spying may have economic ramifications, Fran Burwell, a vice president at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group, said in a phone interview. It may complicate talks about a trans-Atlantic trade pact and has exacerbated long-standing tensions between the U.S. and the European Union over privacy, she said.
“I work on assumption that 6+ countries tap my phone,” Tom Fletcher, Britain’s ambassador to Lebanon, said on a Twitter posting Thursday. “Increasingly rare that diplomats say anything sensitive on calls.”
Denis MacShane, who was Britain’s Europe minister in former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour government, said he was warned to expect that his mobile phone calls would be listened to while he was in France.
“In Paris, it was generally assumed that they wanted to know everything we were saying and thinking,” MacShane said in a telephone interview. “I sometimes made a point of saying things on the phone that I wanted my opposite number to hear, U.K. government positions and so on.”
Communications scrambling equipment used in cars used by British senior ministers was so powerful, Shane said, that women were warned not to travel in them if they were pregnant.
Given the elevated threat of terrorist attacks in Europe this spring, the U.S. was probably seeking “information about terrorism and or the activities in Europe of countries from other regions that are hostile to us,” McLaughlin said.
European nations were probably doing the same thing, he said.
Leaks based on data from Snowden appear “to be timed to interfere with diplomatic activity” and “appear to be directed at driving wedges between us and our allies,” McLaughlin said. “There’s a pattern here that makes you suspicious that whoever is controlling this is trying to achieve that end.”