Majority of Americans think spying on allies is ‘unacceptable’

Brendan Bordelon | Contributor

After documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed a massive American eavesdropping campaign targeting allied heads of state, many American pundits rushed to proclaim that “everybody does it.” But the American people, apparently, do not agree.

A new Pew Research poll released Monday shows that 56 percent of Americans think it is “unacceptable” for their government to pry into the private communications of friendly world leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Remarkably, this sentiment cuts across political divides, with 57 percent of Republicans, 53 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of independents all opposed to spying on our friends. Just 36 percent of Americans support the practice.

National Security Agency (NSA) documents leaked to the public late last month indicate that the calls of 35 separate world leaders were monitored for years, despite the fact that “little intelligence” was gleaned from the surveillance. Many were allies of the United States, including France, Brazil, Germany, Spain and the leaders of the European Union.

The new poll doesn’t mean the NSA is as unpopular here as it is in Germany — where many are still seething over news that the agency tapped into Merkel’s private cell phone for over a decade — but it does show that most Americans pay little attention to the parade of U.S. experts assuring them that the spying is no big deal.

“Even among friends, a lot of espionage takes place, and some of that espionage is targeted against threats to national security,” Charles Kupchan, a professor of international relations at Georgetown University, told CNN last week.

“Then there is the more mundane day-to-day intelligence gathering,” he continued, “which is focusing on intelligence that would be relevant to American statecraft: who is likely to be the next foreign minister, what’s Germany’s position on negotiations with Iran?”

Others accuse furious allied leaders of perpetuating a double standard. “I think there’s a degree of hypocrisy among the Europeans to say, ‘Oh, my gosh, the Americans are spying!’” said Peter Earnest, a 36 year veteran of the CIA, in an interview with CNN. “Well, so are they.”

Max Boot, a military historian at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, was even more blunt. “I have a word of advice for American allies outraged by alleged NSA spying on their leaders: Grow up,” he wrote in Commentary magazine.

Americans have rejected these voices, perhaps realizing the long-term repercussions of the anger sweeping across Europe.

“This has gone so far and has had such diplomatic repercussions, President Obama cannot help but take it seriously and see it as a reason to alter the way in which we share . . . intelligence with Europe,” Tim Naftali, a researcher at the New America Foundation, told NPR. “A signal has to be sent abroad to our allies that we take seriously their concerns about the ambit of NSA collection.”

President Obama signalled last week that his administration is moving to prohibit the NSA from prying into the communications of allied officials. A final decision will likely be made in December.

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