LONDON— While European nations are objecting to the American spying programs that reportedly targeted their populations and their leaders, U.S. officials say the program is misunderstood and that some European intelligence agencies have actually cooperated closely with Washington.
A delegation of indignant European Parliament members hit the sidewalks and halls of power in Washington this week to express concern about the National Security Agency’s surveillance operations.
German member Elmar Brok summarized their concerns. “We have not a free feeling to go forward together if you are feeling that your neighbor and friend is monitoring you."
But top U.S. intelligence officials told Congress that’s not exactly what they were doing. Rather, the NSA director, General Keith Alexander, said the information about phone calls and emails was gathered legally, and reporters mischaracterized what it was.
“Both they and the person who stole the classified data did not understand what they were looking at,” said Alexander.
The person who allegedly stole the data is former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who fled to Russia, where he was granted temporary asylum.
U.S. officials said this week that intelligence agencies in Spain and France collaborated closely with the NSA, and Spain has already backtracked from earlier complaints about alleged U.S. spying.
Senior fellow James Boys of London’s King’s College says much of Europe's shock and outrage about what Snowden revealed seems artificial.
“I think there’s no doubt about it that there is an awful lot of protest that is going on for purely public consumption. The idea that somehow European leaders were shocked, aghast by what it is the Americans have been up to beggars belief [is difficult to believe], quite frankly,” said Boys.
And Boys said U.S. allies benefited from the NSA program. “The intel will find its way, in some instances, back to European nations as part of the ongoing war on terror or an ongoing operation against political violence. And that certainly isn’t anything that’s going to change despite the current uproar.”
The most serious fallout was in Germany. And U.S. officials have said the intelligence operation may have gone too far by bugging the mobile phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Still, with much of the world relying on the United States to lead the fight against violent extremism, Boys said there likely will be no more than what he calls “tinkering” and wrist slapping, and the intelligence gathering will largely continue.