“We all appreciate the taste of sausage even though we’re not always comfortable with how it’s made,” said P.J. Crowley, who served as the State Department’s top spokesman when WikiLeaks released the cables. “Every country has an intelligence service and uses it to understand the world.”
Tamara Wittes, a former deputy assistant secretary of state who oversaw Middle East policy, said that although the WikiLeaks revelations certainly strained some diplomatic relations, the cables themselves were largely in line with U.S. policy that had been articulated publicly.
“The current situation, on its face, involves more than a breach of confidentiality — that’s a breach of trust,” Wittes said. “That said, governments spy on other governments all the time. So this is a bit like the scene in ‘Casablanca’ where Renault is shocked to find gambling in Rick’s club.”
Under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the government must show that it has probable cause that the target of the surveillance is an agent of a foreign power — such as a diplomat — and that a significant purpose of the collection is to gather foreign intelligence, which could include information on terrorism, trade talks and nuclear proliferation.
But there are also international treaties that the United States has agreed to that govern specific organizations, diplomats and buildings. The 1947 U.N. Headquarters Agreement gives special protection to the United Nations and to U.N. diplomats, and the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations gives special protection to diplomats in general, including in the United States. All of those pacts extend to electronic surveillance, the former officials said. The FISA law trumps the international treaties, some experts said.
The decision to spy on a diplomat inside the United States is politically sensitive, and because it would generally be in violation of an international treaty, it should involve the input of officials at the highest levels, including the national security adviser, said Catherine Lotrionte, a CIA assistant general counsel from 1996 to 2002.
Stewart Baker, a former NSA general counsel, said he was “astonished” that the Europeans “are able to recycle their outrage so frequently with so little embarrassment.”
“They, as far as I know, have no ability and have made no effort to prevent the French from spying on the Germans and vice versa, so it’s hard to see what standing they have to object to other people’s espionage,” he said.
Over the weekend, Ashton said her subordinates had approached U.S. officials in Brussels and Washington to “seek urgent clarification on the veracity of and facts surrounding these allegations.” A spokesman for the European Commission said Monday that President JoséManuel Barroso had ordered a sweep of the commission’s headquarters for any monitoring devices.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, speaking in Geneva, weighed in on the revelations, telling reporters that U.N. member states have an obligation to “protect the inviolability of diplomatic missions. . . . In principle, diplomatic activities should be protected, including information.”
Karen DeYoung in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, Ernesto Londoño in Washington and David Nakamura in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, contributed to this report.