Editorial: Spies like us

The recent fuss over the disclosure by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden that the United States spies on its allies is ironic.

Of course we spy on members of the European Union, just as they spy on us.

Nobody likes to talk about it — and, as we’re seeing now, everybody pretends to be outraged when it becomes public — but the fact is that national security demands it.

And we’re being forthright about it: “... as a matter of policy, we have made clear that the United States gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations,” says a recent statement by Washington.

Perhaps there was a time when that wasn’t true, but we doubt it.

True, back in 1929, Secretary of State Henry Stimson shut down the State Department’s cryptanalytic office saying “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.” Faced with the reality of a world preparing for another massive war, Stimson later reversed himself, and codebreaking proved to be a major factor in World War II.

Snowden alleges that we installed covert listening devices in European Union offices and engaged in a variety of other telephone and email intercepts of our erstwhile allies. In response, some European officials — including in Germany, Italy, France, Luxembourg and the EU government itself — have said the allegations could scuttle ongoing negotiations on a trans-Atlantic trade treaty. “Partners do not spy on each other,” said EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding. “We cannot negotiate ... if there is the slightest doubt that our partners are carrying out spying activities on the offices of our negotiators.”

But the fact is that some of those who declare themselves “outraged” are engaged in exactly the same sort of activities. For example, the The German Federal Intelligence Service is legally allowed to sort through up to 20 percent of the communication between Germany and other countries, and monitor certain Internet search terms — the same sort of thing the US’ Prism program is doing. And the agency is currently requesting more money from the government to expand its server and computing capacity and add 100 staff people.

It’s a matter of survival for our government to learn as much as possible about what is going on around the globe — there are evil people out there who wish to harm us and who are even now raising money and making plans to kill Americans.

Reading “each other’s mail” is simply one part of that effort.

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