With this week’s revelations of the National Security Agency listening in on the cellphone calls of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, not to mention scooping up the e-mails of 70 million French citizens, as well as those of the president of Mexico and his closest aides, we have seen again the collective eye-rolls of national security insider types, who just couldn’t be more perplexed as to what all the fuss is about.

Echoing the White House’s sadly lame (and diplomatically tone-deaf) “everybody spies” nondefense, these insiders, who no doubt sleep in their trench coats, have once again argued that spies are paid to listen in on people and that includes our friends and always has.

Were they (and the White House) a little more intellectually honest in their analyses, of course, they would find that, in the first instance, not everyone spies. And that those who do spy do so to differing degrees via differing approaches and within differing guidelines.

Furthermore, the types of spying that are currently gaining much of the criticism have either been controversial within the intelligence community in the past (economic spying and spying on friends) or are so new that they are not well understood in terms of operational security risks or other implications (warehousing data hoovered out of the Internet).

When the White House met with Brazil’s justice minister regarding the revelations that the United States had listened in on that country’s president as well as on some of its leading businesses — like national oil company Petrobras — and responded with the “everybody spies” line, the Brazilian said: “We don’t.”

Some countries feel it’s not worth the resources. Some don’t do it or don’t do much because of other reasons — such as scruples or having come to the conclusion that it doesn’t help that much.

But assume that many countries do spy (because they do). Assume many use nasty techniques against us (including our friends). That still doesn’t mean that we should use every means or method available to us. Because some are too high-risk to warrant it — not because our spies will necessarily be outed or captured or killed, but because our spying might be discovered and diplomatic, political, or economic blow back will result.

For proof, see Brazil’s recent moves to create its own secure e-mail systems; its efforts that are making life harder for U.S. tech companies that cooperated with the NSA; its conversations with India, Russia and China about creating a separate Internet backbone; its cancellation of its state visit to the United States, etc. Watch closely as the NSA scandal accelerates the pace of cyber­nationalism and more countries start setting rules for the Internet within their borders that undercut the promise of free Internet and the political and economic benefits that might bring to the United States.

More revelations and more blowback will follow. Each will produce shrugs from these apologists for intelligence community groupthink to go along with the defenses of the intelligence and policy community types who approved the programs and thus have self-interests to protect.

They will complain it is all the fault of Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald. They will decry their “treachery.” And in so doing they will miss the point.

Whether Snowden broke the law or not, at this point it cannot be denied that he did the world an enormous service by calling out excesses and abuses that should be stopped, framing issues of privacy and sovereignty in the Internet age that demand discussion, and hopefully causing us to think twice about what we do next.

But more important, even the most perfunctory risk analysis has to conclude that in any system where 500,000 people have top-secret clearance, some secrets will not be kept. (It’s ludicrous to think that anything shared beyond a handful of people will be kept secret in such a “system.”)

And so, when any espionage operation is undertaken, the question has to be asked: What if we are discovered? What if we can’t keep the secrets we want to keep?

That in turn frames a question that I heard asked often when I was in Bill Clinton’s administration and have heard not infrequently subsequently: Is the intelligence we might be gathering worth the risks entailed by getting it?

I acutely remember a very uncomfortable meeting with a number of very senior-level officials in which this question was raised about economic intelligence in particular. The conclusion of the intelligence official in attendance was that it was not. We have now started to see similar questions raised about the benefits of this latest wave of spying on friendly governments.

Yes, many governments spy. But so too do all countries have armies, police forces and tax codes. In each instance, the question is not whether to pursue the activity — it is how to do it, how to limit it, and what values should underpin it.

Our spying has overreached. We took risks we shouldn’t have for rewards that were too limited. Even when there were perceived threats that seemed to warrant these activities (and that cannot be the case in some of the recent examples we have encountered of spying against friends and companies), many of those threats may themselves not have been so great as to warrant the risks associated with spying.

What if the NSA scandals result in a more fragmented global Internet? What if they are used as an excuse by repressive regimes to violate their own citizens’ privacy? What if they are used as an excuse to deny U.S. companies access to markets? What if they are used as an excuse to justify similar actions against the United States?

Those aren’t arbitrary questions. All those things not only might happen — they will. They are the direct result of America’s intelligence overreach, of mistakes in judgment by senior White House and intelligence community decisionmakers … and of the enabling atmosphere provided by the pliant, arch, unquestioning attitudes of the faux-hard-boiled wonks who to this day are helping to impede the kind of real reassessment of priorities, methods, and means the U.S. intelligence community so urgently needs.


David Rothkopf is CEO and editor at large of Foreign Policy. He is the author of “Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power.”