German Chancellor Angela Merkel has reason to be mad. During a telephone conversation with US President Barack Obama last week, Ms Merkel bluntly told him that if indeed US intelligence agents had tapped her phone, it would be a “serious breach of trust.”
The chancellor was not done. At the European Union summit in Brussels several days later, she remarked, “Spying on friends, that’s just not done.”
But it seems that the American intelligence network has done it. The Guardian newspaper, citing the revelations of the now-celebrated leaker Edward Snowden, reported that the National Security Agency had monitored the cell phones of 35 world leaders. We can assume that all, if not most, of them, maintain cordial relations with Washington enough to be considered as allies.
Why indeed is America snooping on its friends? Maybe it’s a question that defies a rational answer. Definitely we can’t expect a plausible explanation from the Obama administration.
In typical ambiguous fashion, the White House counter-terrorism adviser wrote that Mr. Obama “has directed us to review our surveillance capabilities, including with respect to our foreign partners. We want to ensure we are collecting information because we need it and not just because we can.”
The US is not denying it is spying on its “foreign partners.” It needs to know what its allies are up to, who they’re talking to. Put simply, America trusts no one, not even its friends.
In the broader scheme of things, the US may be justified in being paranoid. Today’s international situation is extremely fluid. We segue from one crisis to another.
Governments fall and rise, loyalties constantly shift. The US cannot afford to be caught off guard; many times it had let its eye off the ball, and paid dearly for it.
To prevent itself from being blindsided again, the US is trying to fit the Orwellian concept of the all-seeing, all-knowing state into the global stage. Information, transformed into intelligence, becomes not only a tool, but a precision instrument. The government with the most sophisticated intelligence gathering network will always come out as the dominant global player, and without doubt, America holds that title right now.
It would be naïve to believe that the intelligence agencies of other countries are not spying on friendly states as well. Russia, China, Britain, Germany and Israel all are masters of the espionage game and have undoubtedly bugged the phones and Internet lines of American officials at one time or another.
Why then is the US getting the bad rap? Maybe because it is the victim of its image as the world’s white knight, the champion of democracy who saved the world from the communist scourge. That image, unfortunately, shrank with the thawing of the Cold War. Back then the lines were clearly drawn: the West versus the Soviet bloc. Today the distinctions between friend and foe are difficult to discern.
More and more US allies are finding its capability to listen in to phone conversations and hack into supposedly secure Internet connections uncomfortable, if not intimidating.
We wonder if President Benigno Aquino 3rd was among the 35 leaders whose phones were bugged. If he was, will he, like Ms. Merkel, ring up Mr. Obama and give the US president a piece of his mind?